Welsh Assembly rivals refuse to make peace

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THE BATTLE to lead Labour in the Welsh Assembly descended into rancour yesterday after the collapse of a peace deal aimed at uniting the party's leading candidates.

The gloves finally came off in the race to become Wales' first "prime minister" when party officials cancelled a meeting between the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Michael, the backbench MP Rhodri Morgan and MEP Wayne David.

The general secretary of the Welsh Labour Party, Anita Gale, called off the meeting after Mr Morgan made clear he would not drop out of the race.

With the assembly elections less than six months away, a lengthy and potentially damaging leadership contest is now inevitable.

Both sides blamed the other for the failure to reach a compromise, and, in his most outspoken comments so far, Mr Michael last night attacked the "false propaganda" issued by his rival.

In a speech in Cardiff, he said the idea that the cabinet post made him an "outside" candidate "devalued the contest".

"I urge Labour Party members in Wales not to fall for the false propaganda about Wales versus London," he said.

The Secretary of State for Wales also called for a one-member, one-vote (Omov) ballot among party members as a part of an electoral college of unions, constituencies and MPs, MEPs and assembly candidates.

A special party taskforce, which has been charged with drawing up the selection procedure, is today expected to back the electoral college and may include the plan to insist on a limited Omov component.

Mr Michael's supporters said that he was "incensed" by Mr Morgan's remarks that the only chance of achieving unity was if both of them pulled out of the contest.

They claimed that although the Welsh Secretary was being perceived as the underdog in the race, an increasing number of MPs were indicating support for him.

In an indication of the bitterness of the contest ahead, the Michael camp said that some MPs were scared by Mr Morgan's "separatist" language and accused him of being too close to the nationalists, Plaid Cymru.

Llew Smith, staunch anti- devolution campaigner and MP for Blaenau Gwent, was said last night to have pledged his backing for Mr Michael.

Mr Morgan's supporters countered that he had the overwhelming support of MPs, MEPs and assembly candidates. Constituency chairmen had also backed his call for a true Omov ballot of all parts of the electoral college.

A spokeswoman for the Welsh Labour Party said that Ms Gale had rung all three candidates and concluded there was "no prospect of reaching agreement on a unity ticket".