Two years after being elected for an unprecedented third term as Labour leader, Tony Blair's last day in the Commons was an emotional one. His final Prime Minister's Questions was marked by a solemn tribute to serving British troops, and a standing ovation from the benches opposite, led by a Tory leader who had styled himself the "heir to Blair". Shortly afterwards, Gordon Brown took his instructions from the Queen, and after a nervous start, addressed the cameras outside No 10 – finally achieving his ambition of becoming Prime Minister.
It was an emotional day. One on which the normal laws of politics were suspended. Tony Blair was cheered out of the Commons with a standing ovation that broke all the rules. Earlier, his double bed, running machine and exercise bike were removed from the front door of No 10 in the full glare of the television cameras.
The outgoing Prime Minister tried to treat the day as "business as usual". Of course, it was nothing of the sort. He started his preparations for his weekly Commons joust with David Cameron on schedule at 8am. While there were briefings on the floods and his new job as international envoy to the Middle East, he also needed more jokes than usual. He popped a copy of his P45 form into his file, and later brandished it at the dispatch box. Other funny lines were rehearsed but not used.
Even to the end, Mr Blair was shadowed by Iraq. Anti-war protesters outside the gates of Downing Street were joined by people protesting against NHS cuts – two potent issues at the top of Mr Brown's in-tray.
In the Commons, Iraq also loomed large. A packed chamber fell silent when a sombre Mr Blair paid his weekly tribute to the latest servicemen to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went further, praising the dedication of Britain's armed forces. "I have never come across people of such sustained dedication, courage and commitment," he said. And, using a word we have not heard him say often, he added: "I am truly sorry about the dangers they face today in Iraq and Afghanistan."
But the overall mood was favourable to Mr Blair. Mr Cameron paid a generous tribute to him and wished his family well. "That's nice," said Cherie Blair, sitting in a gallery high above the chamber with her four children, including seven-year-old Leo.
"That's it, the end," an emotional Mr Blair said as he concluded a brief farewell statement at the end of Prime Minister's Questions. Mr Brown patted Mr Blair on the back and led an unprecedented two-minute standing ovation by Labour MPs. Only a few Tories joined it at first but Mr Cameron waved his troops to their feet.
The standing ovation continued long after Mr Blair left the chamber for the last time. As he walked through Portcullis House on his way back to No 10 to say a final farewell to his staff, a group of school children and visitors broke into spontaneous applause. It seemed that Mr Blair had achieved the objective of an embarrassing leaked memo about his long goodbye – to bow out with "the crowds wanting more". As they left the Commons chamber, several women Labour MPs were in tears, including Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, and Jacqui Smith, the Chief Whip. So was Phil Woolas, the Local Government minister. "It was like a wedding and a funeral rolled into one," one minister said. A diehard ultra-Blairite added: "What have we done? We will miss him."
Despite the outbreak of consensus, normal political hostilities resumed immediately afterwards. Outside the chamber, Labour MPs greeted and shook hands with their surprise new recruit, Quentin Davies, who defected to Labour on Tuesday. Left-wingers even tried to persuade him to join the Campaign Group.
But some Tories could not disguise their anger at Mr Davies. Alistair Burt, a fellow pro-European, told him sharply: "You are dishonest. You are a wretched man. You are a wretched 24-hour hero." Mr Davies replied: "Don't be stupid," before other MPs intervened to break up the argument. Mr Davies looked comfortable enough sitting two rows behind Mr Blair on the Labour benches but later cut a solitary figure as he lunched alone at Portcullis House. A waiter scooped up his plate before he had finished his lunch when he went to buy a drink, and he had to chase after him.
The carefully choreographed day went mostly to plan. There was an unscripted remark from Cherie Blair as the Blairs left No 10 to go to Buckingham Palace for the Prime Minister to tender his resignation. "I don't think we'll miss you," she told the assembled media in Downing Street with a smile. And not all the crowds were wanting more: when the Blairs left the Palace at 1.40pm after less than half an hour, an egg was thrown at their Jaguar car.
The spotlight was moving quickly to Mr Brown. He emerged with his wife on to the third floor of a refurbished Treasury building, lined with staff who applauded him. On the ground floor, the applause continued, and he stopped to shake hands with several officials in the crowd. He even returned for an encore after saying goodbye to his ministers. The Treasury crowds were definitely "wanting more".
The Browns spent 55 minutes with the Queen, travelling to the Palace in his Treasury six-year-old Vauxhall Omega but leaving in a prime ministerial Jaguar. On his return to Downing Street, he looked nervous as he approached the microphone to address the cameras. It was a low-key affair, a deliberate contrast with the flag-waving crowds of "ordinary people" who lined Downing Street when Mr Blair took office 10 years ago. (It turned out that most were hand-picked Labour Party members – a metaphor for the PR of the Blair era.)
There was an awkward pause at the famous black front door, as Mr Brown appeared to hesitate over how long to linger for the photographers. Downing Street staff took pictures of Mr Brown from the window with their mobile telephones as he addressed the media.
Led by Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, the staff crowded into the lobby and applauded Mr Brown as he entered.
He set to work immediately, addressing the troops. "I don't want to be called anything other than Gordon," Britain's new Prime Minister said, going further than his predecessor's "call me Tony" edict to his Cabinet in 1997, which did not apply to staff.
Mr Brown told his new team he knew it had been "an emotional day" for them because they had said goodbye to "a great leader and a great family". Thanking them for their welcome, he said: "Let's work together." He added it had been "an interesting day" for him. "It's not every day you meet the Queen at 1.30pm, become the Prime Minister at 2pm, speak to the President at 3pm, and get told by Sarah to put the kids to bed at 7pm."
While Mr Brown began work on his cabinet reshuffle, which will be announced today, in Westminster, the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was resigning "for personal reasons".
But Mr Blair had to carry his own overnight bag at King's Cross as he boarded a train for Darlington. The two friends-turned-rivals, whose fortunes have been bound together for so long, had finally diverged.Reuse content