LONDON, (Reuters) – Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister on Wednesday and promised changes after a decade of Labour Party rule marred by a lack of trust in the government since the Iraq war.
After waiting 10 years for Blair to go, the long-serving finance minister faces a resurgent opposition Conservative Party and needs to give Labour a fresh start if it is to regain popularity among voters and win a fourth consecutive term. “This will be a new government with new priorities,” Brown said in a statement to reporters outside the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. “I’ve heard the need for change … and this need for change cannot be met by the old politics,” he said. “And now let the work of change begin.”
On an emotional day, Blair, who has towered over British politics since a landslide election win in 1997, went to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to Queen Elizabeth.
Soon afterwards, a smiling Brown, accompanied by his wife Sarah, said goodbye to staff at the finance ministry which he has run throughout Blair’s premiership. He then made the same short journey past central London landmarks to the palace where the queen asked him to form a government. He emerged from the palace after 55 minutes to find his saloon car had been swapped for a shiny new Jaguar.
Brown’s first task is to appoint a new ministerial team, with far-reaching changes to Blair’s old cabinet.
Blair, Britain’s second longest serving prime minister in a century, led Labour to an unprecedented three consecutive election wins. But, for many Britons, his legacy has been tarnished by his decision to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq. “The first priority of Gordon Brown has to be recognising the disaster of the strategy in Iraq and making plans for the withdrawal of our forces,” said Labour member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn, a critic of Blair and the Iraq war. Britons will have to get used to a new style in their leader. In contrast to Blair’s outgoing personality, Brown is a dour man not given to showing his emotions.
Blair continued to steal the spotlight with reports he was about to be named Middle East envoy for the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Before going to the palace, Blair answered questions in a packed parliament for the last time, displaying his mastery of debating skills in a session marked by humour and emotion.
Blair began by offering condolences to families of British servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last week and paid tribute to the armed forces. “I am truly sorry about the dangers that they face today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know some may think that they face these dangers in vain. I don’t and I never will,” he said. He finished with a final word on politics: “It is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster” before signing off simply with: “I wish everyone — friend or foe — well. And that is that. The end.”
Blair appeared choked up and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was in tears as lawmakers gave Blair a long standing ovation.
Brown received a boost from an opinion poll that put Labour just one percentage point behind the Conservatives and from the defection to Labour of a Conservative parliamentarian who slammed David Cameron’s leadership of the main opposition.
The Conservatives have surged ahead of Labour in polls since last October. Brown does not have to call another election until 2010.
Brown has vowed to revitalise Labour and learn from what he called the divisive Iraq war, although he still backs the decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and has said British troops will abide by their United Nations’ obligations in Iraq.