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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 August 2006, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
So will Hain become deputy PM?
By David Cornock
BBC Wales Parliamentary corresponent

Peter Hain
Hain supporters say he has the backing of four major unions
Guardian readers may have choked on their muesli this morning - "Hain in lead to replace Prescott," said the newspaper's front page.

So is this the start of the silly season (we are in August) or should you put the mortgage on the secretary of state for Wales and Northern Ireland?

There's no doubt that Mr Hain fancies his chances of taking over from Mr Prescott when Tony Blair's deputy stands down (barring accidents, at the same time as his boss).

Mr Hain has been working extremely hard to win over the leaders of the large trade unions whose members will decide one third of the votes in any deputy leadership contest.

His supporters say he has the backing of the leaders of four of the five major unions - Amicus, the Transport and General, the GMB and the Communication Workers, for whom Mr Hain used to work.

This support could be significant, even if individual union members don't always follow their leaders.

Harriet Harman
Harriet Harman is among the starting line up

Despite this support, Mr Hain won't be challenging Chancellor Gordon Brown for Mr Blair's job.

Mr Brown's accession is seen as a foregone conclusion; only a political masochist would take him on and some bookmakers have stopped taking bets on the battle for that job.

But the race to succeed Mr Prescott is more open, with Education Secretary Alan Johnson, Leader of the Commons Jack Straw and Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman all poised to join the fray.

Affiliated union members count for one third of the electorate, with MPs and ordinary party members accounting for the other two thirds.

More outspoken

So what will the Hain campaign message be?

Mr Hain has been more outspoken than most ministers about Labour allegedly taking its members for granted.

He has made anti-nuclear power noises from the sidelines and installed solar panels at home to show green credentials unusual in a motor-racing fan.

He has floated the idea of a debate on higher income tax, a contribution for which he received a frosty early morning call from the chancellor.

Gordon Brown
Hain's falling out with Gordon Brown is said to be forgotten

(Mr Brown has since been heard to insist that their falling out is now long forgotten and is said to believe he could work with Mr Hain as his deputy.)

But for all his appeal as a left-wing "conscience of the party" deputy, Mr Hain will face questions from left-wing MPs over his unstinting support for the war in Iraq.

He also supports the retention of Britain's nuclear deterrent and has let his membership of CND lapse.

For all the talk of Blairites and Brownites, Hainite MPs have been less visible although the man himself believes he has enough private supporters to enter the race.

Mr Hain has nine years' experience as a government minister, with many more in a political career that began with his family's opposition to apartheid in their native south Africa.

He is one of the better communicators in politics, but has never run a large government department.

His political skills have steered through greater powers for the Welsh assembly despite scepticism from many Labour MPs, although his fingerprints can also be found at the scene of some of Welsh Labour's self-inflicted wounds in recent years.

The Guardian says the Welsh secretary is the "surprise frontrunner" to succeed Mr Prescott, thanks to his assiduous courting of trade union leaders.

Officially, Mr Hain says there is no vacancy, although clearly there will be one sooner rather than later.

Labour's annual conference in Manchester next month could well be the last with the Blair/Prescott team in charge. It will be hard to avoid the potential deputy leaders on the conference fringe.

The starting gun may not have been fired but as Mr Prescott would say the tectonic plates are certainly moving.


SEE ALSO
Hain sceptical on nuclear power
30 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Hain's SOS on rising energy costs
17 Feb 06 |  North East Wales

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