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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Johnson fuels leadership speculation
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Alan Johnson is being coy about his leadership ambitions - indeed he even blushes at the question.

Ton Blair and Alan Johnson
Mr Johnson has been coy on leadership ambitions

This is, after all, the minister who coupled his declaration on GMTV that he wanted to be deputy, with the rider that going for the top job was up there with "the idea of putting the Beagle on to Mars, a nice idea but doomed to failure".

Now, however, he finds himself being touted as one of only two men - the other being John Reid - who might put up a credible, Blairite challenge to Gordon Brown.

It's not quite a case of the Beagle has landed, but the idea of the former postie in Downing Street no longer seems quite as long a shot as it once did.

And, blushes or not, Mr Johnson's career shows he is not some naive newcomer whose fame has been thrust upon him. Or that the notion of replacing Tony Blair has never entered his head.

His current coyness in persistently refusing to answer the leadership question is far more likely to be plain politics.

Both jobs

He is very likely watching the reaction to all this leadership talk and, perhaps, even taking soundings in the Labour and union movement to determine whether he really does have a chance against Gordon Brown.

What happened to Beagle 2 as it headed to Mars?

Should he, for example, take a leaf out of John Prescott's book, and stand for both jobs at the same time?

All this speculation was taking place as Mr Johnson delivered a major speech on his education brief, during which he also warned Labour to unite over the leadership question or risk "self destruction".

He strayed well beyond education, speaking of the need for a policy debate and renewal of the party to win a fourth term.

He also appeared eager to broaden his appeal beyond the Blairites, with repeated references to the campaign to end child poverty, tackle inequality and praise for the union movement.

Real Labour

He even went so far as to suggest what was now needed was the bringing together of the ideological and pragmatic wings, "distilling old Labour and new Labour into real Labour".

Gordon Brown
Brown is seen as front runner

Now that is a new slogan to play with. It is risky because bits of the left have often referred to themselves as real Labour.

Indeed, left-wing leadership challenger John McDonnell has already labelled himself Real Labour and is jokingly threatening to sue Mr Johnson for infringement of copyright.

But, once again, that is unlikely to be an accident on Mr Johnson's part, but more an attempt to bring together the rival wings of the party. A third way even.

This certainly appeared to be more than an Education Secretary giving a big speech on his portfolio.

It just remains to be seen whether it was mission control moving the Beagle onto the launch pad...


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