Brown takes the helm as Blair steps aside

[28 June 2007]

By Tom Hundley

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LONDON - With a slight change of address and after a 55-minute chat with the queen, Gordon Brown became Britain’s new prime minister and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair became an ex-prime minister.

At a few minutes past 1 p.m. Wednesday, Blair, accompanied by his family and reportedly wearing his “lucky” shoes, left No. 10 Downing Street for the last time as prime minister. He got into a limo for the short drive to Buckingham Palace, where he formally submitted his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II.

Ten minutes later, the queen summoned Brown to the palace and “invited” him to form the next government. Brown, who for the past decade has lived at No. 11 Downing Street, the designated residence for the chancellor of the exchequer, was then chauffeured back to his new abode at No. 10.

Unlike the U.S., where the transition of power is marked by a daylong parade, a formal inauguration and a long night of fancy balls, Britain’s transitions are swift, surprisingly casual and, in reality, just another working day.

It began early in the morning when a white moving van pulled up to the front door of No. 10, and workers loaded the last of the Blair family’s personal belongings, including an exercise machine, onto the truck.

By noon, Blair was standing at the dispatch box in the well of the House of Commons and, for a final time, engaging in the political blood sport known as PMQ, prime minister’s questions.

He opened with a brief tribute to three British soldiers who died in Iraq over the past week. Blair’s name and political legacy will forever be linked to the war in Iraq, but he was unapologetic, saying only that he was “truly sorry” for the dangers faced by British servicemen.

“I know some may think that they face these dangers in vain. I don’t and I never will. I believe they are fighting for the security of this country and the wider world against people who would destroy our way of life,” he said.

There were barbed questions on shortcomings in the education system and National Health Service. A Tory backbencher complained that Britain was being drawn into “the suffocating quicksand of the European Union. One member from Blair’s Labor Party challenged him on government plans to close local post offices. Blair handled them all with crisp efficiency.

Ian Paisley, the octogenarian Protestant preacher who now leads the semi-autonomous government of Northern Ireland, rose to pay tribute to Blair’s role in brokering the peace between the province’s Catholics and Protestants.

“He is now entering into another colossal task,” Paisley said, referring to Blair’s appointment as special Middle East envoy.

“I hope that what happened in Northern Ireland will be repeated and at the end of the day he will be able to look back and say it was worthwhile,” said Paisley, who used to denounce Blair as a “liar” and the Good Friday peace agreement as “treason.”

David Cameron, the youthful leader of Conservative Party, was expected to toss a few final verbal grenades in Blair’s direction. Instead, he offered words of praise.

“For all of the heated battles across this dispatch box, for 13 years you have led your party, for 10 years you have led your country, and no one can be in any doubt, in terms of the huge efforts you have made in terms of public service,” Cameron said.

A light came on indicating the end of the session, and Blair paid his final respects to the members of Parliament, saying he “never stopped fearing” their weekly inquisition.

“I wish everyone, friend and foe, well,” he said, his voicing catching with emotion. “And that is that. The end.”

As he walked out, he received an unusual standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

It was an unexpectedly warm farewell to a prime minister whose approval ratings and personal credibility have plummeted in the face of an unpopular war and a series of domestic scandals.

The day’s only genuinely ungracious note was sounded by Blair’s wife, Cherie, whose parting shot to the press waiting in front of No. 10, was, “I don’t think we’ll miss you.”

In addition to his success in Northern Ireland, Blair will be remembered for making the Labor Party electable and sustaining a decade of economic growth. Full credit for reinventing the Labor Party certainly belongs to Blair, but the robust economy is more a combination of good luck and the management skills of the man who takes over for him.

The political careers of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have been joined at the hip since 1983, when both became freshman members of Parliament. They are, however, men of sharply contrasting styles.

Brown lacks Blair’s political flair and people skills. A phrase like “the people’s princess,” which Blair used to encapsulate his country’s grief after the death of Princess Diana, would never pass Brown’s lips.

Brown, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, is heavy on gravitas and seems likely to hew closer to Labor’s traditional line. He genuinely believes in social justice, and in making the rich pay for it.

“When the strong help the weak, it makes us all stronger,” he said last week in his first speech as party leader.

Brown has been accused of being a control freak, of having a Stalinist management style, but recent days have seen him working hard to soften his image and open his government up to new people and new ideas.

“I will reach out beyond narrow party interest. I will build a government that uses all the talents,” he said Wednesday. “I will invite men and women of goodwill to contribute their energies in a new spirit of public service to make our nation what it can be.”

He already has offered a senior Cabinet post to Paddy Ashdown, a prominent figure in the Liberal Democrats, but Ashdown declined.

More significantly, Brown has hinted that he will call a quick election, perhaps as early as next year.

Mocked by the Conservatives as the “prime minister unelect,” Brown wants his own mandate and may call an election as soon as he establishes an identity with voters and thinks he can win.

A few months ago, Labor trailed Conservatives by 10 points, and Brown trailed Cameron by 14 or 15 points. But in recent days, Labor has enjoyed a Brown bounce, and they now lead the Conservatives by three points.

While Brown was settling into his office, fielding congratulatory phone calls from foreign leaders, citizen Blair - to the astonishment of his fellow citizens at London’s King’s Cross railway station - boarded a train to take him back to his constituency office in County Durham.

Arriving there, Blair announced that he would also be resigning from his seat in Parliament to devote his full energies to his new post in the Middle East. But what matters more to Britain now is what Brown will do next.

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