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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Big questions for deputy hopefuls
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

There are two big questions, at least, which hang over the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party but which have, so far, remained virtually invisible.

Deputy leadership contenders
Six contenders are seeking deputy job
First there is the giant, trumpeting elephant in the room with the word Iraq painted across it.

The second is whether, if elected, the six candidates really expect to become deputy prime minister.

On the first, no matter how much regretting, explaining or finessing may be done now, none of the candidates can get away from the fact they all voted for the war during the big debate in February 2003.

That may not be a huge surprise. There are plenty of Labour Party MPs and members who also supported the invasion, believing what they were told at the time, and who now have very different feelings about the exercise.

What may be more surprising is that probably the most controversial issue in recent Labour politics is not likely to feature in the contest.

Labour Party members do not have a focus for any anti-war sentiments they may wish to express - there is nowhere for the protest vote to really go.

Defining event

Anti-war candidate John McDonnell failed to make the ballot paper for the party leadership, and, as Gordon Brown has discovered during a campaign hustings, feelings are still running high over the issue.

The deputy leadership contest has done nothing to subdue those feelings.

Iraq protest near Basra
All candidates voted for the war
Indeed, it was former minister Michael Meacher's support for it, despite his later protestations of being misled by Tony Blair, that may well have led to him losing out to Mr McDonnell as they battled to take on Mr Brown.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the failure of Mr McDonnell to get onto the ballot paper or the lack of an anti-war deputy leadership contender means this issue has gone away.

It remains a defining event for the party and its MPs and government.

There may, however, be a belief that Gordon Brown's premiership might mark a change of emphasis on the war, with an element of implied regret and a focus on withdrawal.

The other thorny issue which will also remain unanswered is whether the candidates expect to follow John Prescott and be appointed deputy prime minister.

It is not an automatic appointment and previous prime ministers have served either entirely or for long periods without a deputy.

No deputy

The cabinet pecking order deals with the issue of who runs the country when the prime minister is away or stands in at question time in the House of Commons - foreign secretary or leader of the house for example.

John Prescott
Deputy prime minister John Prescott
The deputy job has often been handed out on the basis of a reward or, possibly, stopping a senior figure building up a seething resentment over lack of preferment.

In any case the notion that, nowadays, the prime minister is ever entirely out of contact or has ever fully released the reigns of office just does not apply.

Add to that the suspicion that Mr Brown sees no need for a deputy and that has led to the belief that whoever gets the job will have to put up with being only deputy Labour leader.

All the deputy leadership candidates have signalled they would be happy not to be deputy prime minister - indeed, backbencher John Cruddas has made it a major part of his campaign.

However, some of the other candidates - such as bookies' favourite Alan Johnson - have made no bones about the fact they do fancy the job.

And suggestions Mr Brown might give it to somebody else, such as his campaign manager Jack Straw, have apparently not gone down at all well.

In the end, it may depend on who is elected and what they and the prime minister want their role to be.

As ever, Mr Brown is keeping his cards close to his chest although he may yet decide he needs to reassure party members they have a powerful voice in government with a deputy prime minister.

These may not be the issues that will decide the outcome of the deputy leader election, but they are questions that will continue to hover around it.

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