Brown pledges change as British prime minister

LONDON Wed Jun 27, 2007 5:35pm EDT

1 of 11. Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah arrive at 10 Downing Street in London June 27, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Kieran Doherty

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LONDON (Reuters) - Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Britain's prime minister on Wednesday after years of waiting and promised sweeping changes in style and policy to restore trust in a government damaged by the Iraq war.

Queen Elizabeth asked the long-serving finance minister to form a government after Blair resigned at Buckingham Palace on a day of ceremony and emotion in which political foes put their rivalries aside.

Blair, prime minister for a decade, signed off by answering questions in parliament for the last time, giving an emotional performance that brought one minister to tears and the assembly to its feet.

International powers later named Blair as their Middle East peace envoy, handing him a daunting new challenge.

Less than two hours after Blair left the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence for Buckingham Palace, Brown stood posing for photographs at the same black front door, every move captured by a throng of cameramen and photographers.

Onlookers and anti-Iraq war protesters gathered outside Downing Street while a crowd formed outside the palace.

Blair, whose rule began with high promises but ended with his popularity badly dented by the 2003 Iraq war, stepped aside to give the Labour Party a better chance of winning a fourth consecutive term in the next election.

He also resigned his parliamentary seat on Wednesday.

Opposition leaders have urged Brown, whose takeover had long been planned by the party, to announce an immediate election rather than wait until it is due, by 2010. But he showed no sign of yielding to the demand.

"This will be a new government with new priorities," Brown, 56, told reporters in a statement as he arrived at 10 Downing Street, his wife Sarah at his side.

"I've heard the need for change ... and this need for change cannot be met by the old politics," he said, pledging to use "all the talents" in his cabinet, to be unveiled on Thursday.

In a surprise, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who had been expected to remain in the cabinet, announced she was leaving government "for personal reasons".

Hewitt has been under fire for months over cuts in the National Health service to balance the state-run service's books. She said in a letter to Brown she had rejected his offer of a post in his cabinet.

DOWN TO BUSINESS

Downing Street staff applauded Brown in and he got down to business, calling U.S. President George W. Bush for a 10-minute "cordial and constructive" conversation, Brown's spokesman said.

He also spoke to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Brown said he was focused on the need for change in the National Health Service and for more affordable housing. Voters also wanted changes to build trust in government and to "protect and extend the British way of life," he said.

"I will try my utmost," Brown said, repeating the motto of his old school.

Sniping between Blair and Brown's camps over the past year has contributed to the Labour Party lagging in most recent opinion polls to the resurgent opposition Conservatives.

But Brown got a boost on Wednesday from a survey putting Labour just one percentage point behind the Conservatives.

Brown, whose father was a church minister in Scotland, is widely seen as a less charismatic than Blair. As finance minister throughout the Blair years, he guided the economy to uninterrupted growth, but interest rates have hit a six-year high, pushing up housing costs.

Experts forecast no big changes in Brown's policy on Iraq, where British troop numbers are already expected to decline.

Blair, 54, who has towered over British politics since a landslide election win in 1997, won a standing ovation in parliament. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was in tears.

Blair, Britain's second longest serving prime minister in a century, led Labour to an unprecedented three consecutive election wins. But, for many voters, his legacy has been tarnished by his decision to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In contrast to Blair, Brown is not given to showing his emotions. Voters may welcome the change. Blair became associated with a culture of "spin" in which news management was prominent.

Before stepping down, Blair answered questions in a packed parliament for the last time, displaying his mastery of debating skills in a session marked by humor and emotion.

Blair said he was "truly sorry" about the dangers British soldiers face 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 politics was "still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster" and signed off with: "I wish everyone -- friend or foe -- well. And that is that. The end."

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Adrian Croft and Katherine Baldwin)

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