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Brown prepares to succeed Blair

Reuters | June 27, 2007
Sophie Walker

Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair on Wednesday to become the 52nd prime minister, charged with healing wounds over Iraq and restoring public faith in a Labour government in order to win a fourth consecutive term.

After waiting 10 years for Blair to go, Brown must contend with a resurgent Conservative Party as he strives to emerge from the shadows of Blair's leadership, refresh Labour and put his own stamp of authority on the top job.

Brown, chancellor throughout Blair's premiership, will visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace at about 1:30 p.m. The Queen will ask him to form a government and Brown will start appointing a team of new and old faces, expected to be completed on Thursday.

"People are hopeful there is going to be a change of mood and a change of pace very quickly," said Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, a critic of Blair and the Iraq war.

"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," he added.

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.

But 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 MP who slammed David Cameron's leadership of the main opposition.

The Conservatives have surged ahead of Labour in polls since last October but a YouGov poll for Sky News on Wednesday put the Conservatives at 37 points and Labour at 36.

Earlier this week, one poll put Labour five points behind the Conservatives while another put Brown's party ahead for the first time in eight months. The next election is due by 2010.

BUSH PAYS TRIBUTE

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.

Other early challenges for the new leader include staving off demands for a referendum on a new European Union treaty, agreed in outline by Blair and other EU leaders last week.

The delicate issue of a U.S. corruption probe into defence firm BAE Systems' dealings with Saudi Arabia may also prove to be a diplomatic headache.

But it is Britain's close relationship with the United States -- Blair was President George W. Bush's closest ally over Iraq -- that will dominate Brown's early agenda.

"Iraq is still sitting at the top of Brown's in-tray and it's very hard to see how that can be turned around," said David Mepham, head of the international unit at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Bush paid tribute to Blair in an interview with The Sun, describing him as a great ally and "a very talented man" and adding: "Tony has always been very gracious about Gordon Brown to me."

Many Labour MPs want Brown to distance himself from Washington and pursue a more independent foreign policy.

Blair, 54, the second longest-serving prime minister in a century, attends a final weekly question-and-answer session with MPs on Wednesday before he retires.

He will then go to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to the queen and is later expected to stand down as a member of parliament if confirmed in the Middle East post.

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

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