Gordon Brown is unlikely to face any serious opposition for the Labour leadership when Tony Blair steps down, a cabinet minister has acknowledged.
Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said that although the chancellor himself had said he would like a contest, he was the "natural successor" to the prime minister.
Left-winger John McDonnell has declared he would stand against Mr Brown, if only in the interests of democracy to prevent an outright coronation. He is backed by many trade union leaders, but there are questions about his support among MPs.
Mr Hain, who has declared for the deputy Labour leadership, told Today: "You require around 44 nominations from members of the parliamentary Labour party. You can't force people to nominate somebody just to contrive a contest.
"Nobody can contrive an artificial contest or somehow try to frog-march somebody on to the ballot paper."
His comments came as former home secretary Charles Clarke said he "expected" Mr Brown to take over at No 10, despite previously dismissing him as a "control freak".
John Reid, the current home secretary, was considered one of few people who could really take on the chancellor for the top job, and his speech to the Labour party conference last month indicated that he might be interested.
But reports suggest he has almost certainly decided not to stand, while another possible contender, education secretary Alan Johnson, is also likely to rule himself out soon.
Speaking this morning, Mr Hain described Mr Brown as an "outstanding" politician, saying he and Mr Blair had been the "twin architects of Labour's extraordinary success".
"Everybody understands that," he said, adding: "I think that's the reason why people see him, as I do, as the natural successor to Tony."
His comments reflect a different mood in Westminster - at the height of the September crisis in the party, which forced Mr Blair to announce he would quit within a year, there were a number of ministers who said they would back "anyone but Gordon".
One of the chancellor's fiercest critics was Mr Clarke, who was sacked as home secretary in May. He said Mr Brown had been "absolutely stupid" in the way he dealt with the attempted coup against the prime minister.
But on BBC One's Question Time last night, he said: "I think he has great qualities, I think he would be a very good prime minister.
He said Mr Brown still faced a number of challenges, noting: "I think he has to set out a vision for the country which will give the country confidence in what he can offer and I think he has to work collegially with all his colleagues."
Mr Clarke added that whether or not there would be a race for the Labour leadership "depends on the extent to which people in the country, reflected in polling and all the other various other tests of opinion, feel confident in Gordon's capacity to win the next general election".