Keir Starmer’s bid to become the next Labour leader has received a major boost after the influential Unison ​trade union threw its weight behind his campaign.

In a blow to his rivals, the shadow Brexit secretary won the coveted endorsement of the UK’s largest union, which represents more than 1.4 million public sector workers.

The surprise announcement from Unison came as Sir Keir took an early lead in the contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn by securing 23 MP nominations – enough to get on to the ballot paper.

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His main rival, Rebecca Long Bailey, was well behind with only seven MPs, followed by Jess Phillips on six, Lisa Nandy on two and Emily Thornberry with just one backer.

Clive Lewis, regarded as an outsider in the six-way race, has failed to win the public support of any MP so far.

Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, said: “This is a pivotal time for Labour. We believe – if elected by the membership – Keir Starmer would be a leader to bring the party together and win back the trust of the thousands of voters who deserted Labour last month.”

He added: “Keir has a clear vision to get Labour back to the winning ways of the past. He is best placed to take on Boris Johnson, hold his government to account and ensure Labour can return to power and, once more, change working people’s lives for the better.”

Under Labour’s rules, leadership hopefuls must win the backing of 10 per cent of MPs and MEPs to get on to the ballot paper. They then must secure the support of 5 per cent of constituency parties and affiliated groups, including two trade unions.

Sir Keir said he was “honoured” to win Unison’s support and hailed the work of its members, who include nurses, care workers and teaching assistants.

He said: “I want to lead a Labour Party that will stand side by side with trade unionists. United, we can rebuild our party, take the fight to the Tories and win.”

Unison is the first of the unions to enter the fray, while Unite, headed by influential Jeremy Corbyn ally Len McCluskey, will decide on its candidate later this month.

The support of Unite, Labour's largest financial backer, is likely to be decisive in the race.

Ms Long Bailey has been widely tipped as Unite's chosen candidate, but Mr McCluskey insisted that no decision had been made.

Meanwhile, Unison also thew its support behind shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, one of six candidates in the race to be deputy leader.

Mr Prentis said: “Angie has a long association with Unison as a member and a union rep and has an intimate understanding of the day-to-day struggles facing working people and their families across the UK.

“Angie’s popularity across the party means she is the right person to handle the challenges of this job. Angie will make a great deputy leader if elected."

Ms Rayner is up against left-wingers Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, Tooting MP Rosena Allin-Khan, Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray and Birmingham Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood.

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