WENDY Alexander is poised to become the first woman to lead the Scottish Labour Party after she emerged last night as the only serious candidate to replace Jack McConnell.
A close ally of the Prime Minister and a former Cabinet minister at Holyrood, she has declared her intention to stand for the leadership.
Her two rivals for the job, Andy Kerr, the former health minister, and Margaret Curran, the former communities minister, both ruled themselves out as soon as Ms Alexander's candidacy was confirmed.
Mr McConnell announced yesterday morning that he was standing down as Labour leader in Scotland - a departure that had been forecast by senior party figures ever since he lost the election to the SNP in May.
Ms Alexander initially refused to say whether she would stand for the leadership, insisting it was "Jack's moment" and saying she did not want to get in the way of his announcement.
But within four hours, the 44-year-old mother of two had issued a statement confirming her intention to replace Mr McConnell as head of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament.
She said: "Labour suffered a bad defeat at the May elections. But we can use our time in opposition to reform and reorganise the party in Scotland and find new ideas to reconnect with the people of Scotland. It will be a big challenge but it is one I am willing to undertake if I win the backing of the Labour membership."
Her campaign is being led by Tom McCabe, the former finance minister, and it will be launched officially tomorrow.
The decision by Mr Kerr and Ms Curran not to enter the race virtually guarantees there will be no contest, leaving Ms Alexander to be crowned leader unopposed, in much the same way as her ally Gordon Brown earlier this year.
Mr Kerr said: "The debate we need to have is about the future of Scotland and Labour. I intend to be part of that debate and I believe that the best way for me to do that is not as a leadership contender but as an active contributor to it."
Ms Curran said: "I will not be standing as a candidate to become the next leader. I am strongly supporting Wendy Alexander as the next leader. She is energetic, creative and determined, qualities which I believe the party needs at this time."
Some senior figures in the party, including a few close to Ms Alexander, wanted a contest so that ideas and policies could be debated openly. They feared a "coronation" would send the wrong signals to the public. But with only an outside chance of a challenger, that contest now looks unlikely to happen.
The left wing of the parliamentary party, the Campaign for Socialism Group, will meet on Sunday to discuss putting forward a candidate, but with only five MSPs and limited support, the chances of one coming forward are remote. Bill Butler, the MSP for Glasgow Anniesland, was mentioned last night as the only possible member of the group who might stand. But he will need six MSPs to sign his nomination form and it was not clear where those nominations would come from.
This leaves Ms Alexander with the leadership all but won within hours of Mr McConnell's departure. She is expected to be elected unopposed in a process that will take three to four weeks.
It will not be completed by the start of the new parliamentary session, but that timescale will ensure she can start a full policy review before the end of the year.
Cathy Jamieson, the former justice minister and deputy leader, will be the caretaker leader and is expected to take on Alex Salmond in First Minister's Questions for the first couple of weeks of the new session, which starts at the beginning of September.
Ms Alexander has already signalled her desire to review and reform the party's policy structure, but she knows she will also have to tackle the low number of activists and revitalise the party at a local level if she is to mount a successful challenge to the SNP in 2011.
She will also need to persuade voters in Scotland that she has the autonomy to lead in the interests of the country, rather than simply being the Prime Minister's spokeswoman north of the Border.
One critical response to her likely elevation came from Tommy Sheridan, the Solidarity leader. He said Ms Alexander would be "disastrous" for Labour, adding: "Socialists who are left in the Labour Party must be in despair that they can't even find a left candidate to stand."
Mr McConnell announced his decision to stand down at a party event in Edinburgh yesterday morning.
Mr Brown then announced the former First Minister was to be appointed as Britain's next High Commissioner to Malawi - a move that drew criticism from senior civil servants. The FDA, the union representing senior mandarins, said all such posts should be open to competition to avoid accusations of "cronyism".
Mr McConnell, who led Labour in Scotland for six years, said he was aggrieved he not managed to win the election in May.
He said: "If I have one regret, it is that we did not win a mandate to pursue the radical and comprehensive education reforms I believe are right for Scotland's future. I hope Labour MSPs are able to push for at least some of those education policies to be implemented in the next four years."
He went on: "But now it is time for me to move on. The party needs to respond to the election defeat in May and hear what the Scottish people had to tell us. We need to re-engage with our people to develop the policies and the approach which will rebuild our support, because those with the least need us to be successful."
Mr McConnell insisted that Scotland was better now than it had been six years ago when he came to power, adding: "It is time for the rest of my life to begin."
His political opponents queued up to praise a man they had clashed with politically on many occasions. Mr Salmond said: "I extend Jack McConnell every good wish for the future. He once said that the job of each First Minister was to leave Scotland better than they found it. With the smoking ban and his work in Malawi he has certainly done that."
Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader who was Mr McConnell's deputy first minister, said: "Jack McConnell was prepared to put aside narrow party dogma to seek and build consensus on a positive way forward for Scotland."
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, said: "As First Minister, he discharged his responsibilities with diligence and tackled all his challenges with assiduous determination.
"We wish him well for the future as he takes on new and exciting challenges which are clearly close to his heart."