CONTROVERSIAL councillor Valerie Wise could make a shock return to the helm of Preston Council after emerging as the favourite in the battle for the leadership of the borough.

Senior Labour Party sources say four councillors are considering standing for the post of council leader, which is being vacated by Peter Rankin in May.

Assuming Labour retain control of the authority, a four-way battle looks set to result in Coun Wise returning to power.

A senior party official told the Citizen: "Valerie is by far the favourite. We know she can do the job. She steadied the ship and retained her credibility.

"She is great against her opponents and I am sure she would be able to unite the party."

Should she win, it would be her second spell as leader. Her first, in 1995, saw her mopping up in the wake of the Operation Angel scandal, which centred around the sale of land in Preston.

If Coun Wise was to become leader, she would be presiding over a chamber which now includes ex-town clerk Geoff Driver. Her attempts to oust him from his post in 1995 led to a vote of no confidence being passed against her in November 1995, effectively ending her last spell as leader.

She was highly critical of his return to the Town Hall at the last election.

The four councillors in the running for the contest, which will be decided by Labour's councillors on May 5, are Coun Ken Cole, Coun Valerie Wise, Coun John Saksena and Coun Albert Richardson.

Coun Cole said: "My priority is be re-elected first. Minds will focus nearer the time."

Coun Richardson said: "If someone is prepared to put my name forward, then I would be more than happy to stand."

But Coun Marcus Johnston, who had been tipped to succeed Coun Rankin, this week ruled himself out, saying: "I can only just juggle my job and my council work at the moment, so being leader is out of the question."

Coun Johnston has been named among the 800-strong group of Labour members who could stand at the next general election.

But our source added: "Whoever wants the job must be mad. It is a tough job and having a leg sawn off seems less painful."

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