Britain meets its future

Major to step down as Tory leader
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday made a triumphal journey from Islington to Buckingham Palace, and on to Number 10, before declaring his commitment to a new politics without dogma and doctrine.

After an emotionally charged welcome from an enthusiastic crowd in Downing Street, the new Prime Minister said: "For 18 years - 18 long years - my party has been in opposition. It could only say, it could not do.

"Today, we are charged with the deep responsibility of government. Today, enough of talking - it is time now to do."

Hitting the ground running, Mr Blair made his first seven Cabinet appointments before going home to Islington for a good night's sleep, with plans to complete the Cabinet list today.

The Conservatives suffered a second shattering blow in 24 hours when John Major capped the humiliating defeat by announcing his precipitate resignation, throwing his party into the turmoil of a leadership contest next month. After saying: "When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage," he went off to watch cricket at the Oval.

In spite of hints to the contrary, Mr Blair's new politics was not expected to extend to the appointment of any outsiders, in spite of Liberal Democrat hopes that a new consensus was about to be born.

The new Labour consensus was shown by the lack of attack on the Tory record and the appointment of Clare Short, an outspoken left-winger, to the Cabinet today.

Yesterday, John Prescott was first into No 10, to be appointed Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for environment, transport and the regions.

As expected, Gordon Brown became Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary; Jack Straw, Home Secretary; Lord Irvine of Lairg, Lord Chancellor; and David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

Margaret Beckett, the only one of the first seven to have previous ministerial experience, was appointed President of the Board of Trade, but she is expected to be joined by at least two other women in the Cabinet today, Ms Short and Marjorie Mowlam.

With 116 women MPs in the new Parliament, the face of politics will be changed for good when the Commons assembles on Tuesday.

But it was the result itself that shook the political scene to its foundations, with seven Cabinet ministers scythed, the Liberal Democrats more than doubling the number of seats to notch up a 70-year record, and Labour's landslide giving it a majority of 179.

That majority trumped the historic Labour landslide majority of 146 won by Clement Attlee in 1945. But with the youngest Prime Minister, record swings, the complete Tory wipe-out in Scotland and Wales, and two Sinn Fein candidates elected in Northern Ireland, it was an election of broken records.

Paddy Ashdown, who claimed advances "in every part of Britain", welcomed the prospect of a new consensus, saying: "Where there are things that the Labour Party will introduce that we think are beneficial, that we agree with and are good for the nation, we will work with them."

His party added another seat late yesterday when Mark Oaten won Winchester from the former health minister Gerry Malone by just two votes in a recount. Because of the delay the result is not in today's paper.

For the Tories, it marked the start of a nightmare that could yet see the party entering the kind of political wilderness inhabited by Labour in the early 1980s.

With Mr Major spurning the pleas of colleagues who had wanted him to steer the party into calmer waters, he opened up a leadership race that was promptly joined by Kenneth Clarke, the pro-European former Chancellor. Mr Clarke is so loathed by the Euro-sceptics that his candidature will bring out all the poison of Tory division, for which the party was punished on Thursday.

Among those axed by the voters was Michael Portillo, the darling of the right, along with half a dozen other Cabinet colleagues; Malcolm Rifkind, Tony Newton, Ian Lang, Michael Forsyth, William Waldegrave, and Roger Freeman. Mr Major's sudden announcement of his resignation was the more surprising because the party also lost Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee and the one person who is constitutionally charged with responsibility for the organisation of leadership contests.

There was no shortage of potential candidates. Michael Howard, John Redwood, Gillian Shephard, Stephen Dorrell, and William Hague were all in the frame. But Michael Heseltine, the one man who could provide the leadership now required, was keeping his own counsel.

Adding to Tory anxiety last night, a source close to the former prime minister even suggested that Mr Major, now freed from direct responsibilities, could come out in outright opposition to single currency entry during the five-year lifetime of the new Parliament. Given that he had spent the entire election refusing to do that, in order to keep his party together, that could be the last straw.