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Are their eyes really on second prize?

August 23rd, 2005

Is it the deputy leadership the only thing that Cabinet ministers are running for?
Runner-up medal
Since the sad death of Robin Cook, it’s been widely said that Gordon Brown was planning to choose Cook as his deputy when he assumed the leadership of the Labour party. No slight is remotely intended to Robin Cook – a principled and extremely gifted politician – in pointing out that it’s unlikely this was a foregone conclusion. Though the Chancellor and the former Foreign Secretary improved their relationship in the last few years, there was a bitter personal feud between them for 25 years. And to follow the Liberal Democrats’ example by putting two Scottish MPs at the head of the Labour party wouldn’t obviously have created the “balanced ticket” which is often a key factor in selecting a deputy.

But whether or not Cook was in line for the job, speculation has been boosted about who will be Labour’s next deputy leader. In The Times on Saturday, David Charter assessed the likely contenders, mentioning Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Wales and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, party chairman Ian McCartney, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, and Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson. It’s a clear and well-informed article, and worth reading in full.

The article closes with some betting odds for the deputy leadership: Johnson – popular across the party and especially with the trade unions – is 7/2 favourite, with his nearest rivals Blunkett (9/2) and McCartney (11/2). These odds don’t seem to be available online: they may have been quoted by a bookie who hasn’t made them widely available. Or of course David Charter may be a gambling fan and have made them up, in which case he would feel very welcome on this site.

Paddy Power is quoting some rather different odds online, with Blunkett as 7/2 favourite, followed by Jack Straw (4/1), Charles Clarke (9/2) and Johnson (11/2).

All of this assumes Gordon Brown will be the next leader of the Labour party. But what if he isn’t? The next few years aren’t without their risks to him: an economic downturn would hit his fortunes harder than anyone else’s. And reading about the views of Mo Mowlam (not an uncritical ally of Blair) that Brown’s personality made him “unfit to be Prime Minister” does suggest that other senior Labour figures may privately feel the same way.

Labour’s deputy leader is elected by the same electoral college as the leader, with votes split equally between the MPs and MEPs, individual members, and trade unions. So anyone looking to build popularity for a deputy leadership race is also focusing on winning over the people who elect the leader. Being established as the favourite for the deputy’s job could be very handy if it turns out Brown doesn’t have the leadership sewn up. And in fact, Alan Johnson is the second favourite at 11/1 to be the next Labour leader. Not bad odds for someone who seems popular with the people who matter.

The problem? It might be hard to have it both ways for too long. If things do go smoothly for Gordon Brown, the party is likely to listen to his guidance on whom he wants as his deputy. But if things go awry, anyone who has stayed too close to Brown may suffer with him. The Chancellor is not reputed to be patient with those who aren’t his wholehearted supporters. If the deputy leadership contenders want to keep their options open, they have a careful path to tread.

Philip Grant
Guest editor

Mike Smithson is on holiday until 5th September.






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