LONDON (Reuters) - Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair as prime minister on Wednesday, inheriting a Labour government trailing in many polls because of Iraq and needing to win back voters if it is to secure a fourth consecutive term.
After waiting 10 years for Blair to step aside, Brown must also contend with a resurgent Conservative opposition as he strives to emerge from the shadows of Blair’s leadership and put his own stamp of authority on the top job.
Underlining the scale of the task was the headline-making coverage for Blair, who stole the spotlight with reports he was about to be named as a Middle East envoy for the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Brown, who served as chancellors throughout Blair’s premiership, has vowed to revitalise the ruling Labour Party and learn from what he called the divisive Iraq war, although he still backs the decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led -invasion.
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 British 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.
“He needs to be more assertive with America and say they have to talk more seriously with Iran and Syria about it.”
Blair, 54, Britain’s second longest-serving prime minister in a century, will go to parliament for a final weekly question-and-answer session with legislators on Wednesday before he retires.
He will then go to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to Queen Elizabeth, who will later ask Brown, 56, to form a new government.
Brown has pledged a new style of inclusive leadership, although his initial attempts to woo members of parliament from other parties for his new government failed.
He is still expected to press for cross-party support on issues including the environment and reform of parliamentary processes that allow the government to declare war.
Apart from the damage done by his staunch support for the Iraq war, Blair’s popularity has been dented by public perceptions that he placed too much store in slick media presentations and misled voters.
The size of Brown’s task in wooing back disaffected voters was underscored by an opinion poll in Tuesday’s Independent showing Labour trailing the Conservatives by five percentage points.
Promising to reach out to the disaffected, Brown is seeking to cast himself as a safe and dependable leader.
Brown will have to work at portraying himself as upbeat and able to listen and learn from Blair’s mistakes.
In their uneasy 10-year relationship, he was often cast as a brooding, sulky character next to Blair’s smiles and nimbleness as a politician.
“Gordon has not been the miserable grump that was being suggested. (He is) seen to be positive and a break with the Blair era which people find immensely reassuring,” said Ian Davidson, a Labour member of parliament.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Katherine Baldwin