LONDON -- It was brutal. And majestic. The old prime minister was out by lunch and off to watch a cricket match. The new prime minister marched triumphantly along the most prestigious patch of political asphalt in the country, Downing Street.
Yesterday, Britain entered the Tony Blair era, as the country's youngest prime minister in 185 years celebrated Labor's historic May Day landslide win over the Conservatives.
Blair, who turns 44 on Tuesday, will preside over Labor's largest Parliamentary majority in history, as his party gained 419 seats in the 659-member House of Commons.
The Conservatives sustained their worst beating since 1906, grabbing just 165 seats, an outcome that left former Prime Minister John Major heading for retirement. He announced plans to quit as party chief.
The repudiation of the Conservatives was devastating.
Wales and Scotland became Tory-free zones.
Seven Cabinet ministers were ousted.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's old seat in Finchley and Golders Green went Labor. So did dozens of other Tory strongholds, reducing the party's once vaunted Middle England heartland into a Conservative wasteland.
"We have won in places we never dreamed of," said Labor's Chris Smith.
In perhaps the most symbolic race of all, Neil Hamilton, a Tory who denied allegations that he had taken cash to ask Parliamentary questions, was routed by Martin Bell, a BBC war journalist turned crusading anti-corruption candidate.
credulous Bell said: "I knew The Force was with us."
The Labor majority is so big that its politicians will have to sit in seats normally reserved for the opposition. This new Labor bunch is younger and more middle-class than ever before, as a working-class party has transformed itself into a centrist coalition. Labor also brought 102 women to Parliament -- a record.
Labor hasn't governed in almost a generation, but its inner circle of Cabinet members is considered experienced. The top figures include Robin Cook (foreign secretary), Gordon Brown (chancellor of the exchequer), Jack Straw (home secretary) and John Prescott (deputy prime minister). David Blunkett (education secretary) becomes the first blind person to serve in a British Cabinet.
Blair was clearly overwhelmed as he made the journey to No. 10 Downing Street, via Buckingham Palace.
Back on Downing Street, Blair strolled to his new home with his wife, Cherie, at his side. His three school-age children waited by the shiny black front door. Hundreds of spectators chanted his name and waved Union Jacks.
"For 18 years, 18 long years, my party has been in opposition," he said. "It could only say; it could not do. Today, we are charged with the deep responsibility of government."
Blair vowed "to bring this nation together, to unite it. One Britain, one nation united in compassion and decency and duty towards other people. Simple values."
Tribute to Major
Blair also paid tribute to Major "for his dignity and courage over the last few days and the manner of his leaving, the essential decency which is the mark of the man."
With weeping workers peering out windows before Blair arrived, an exhausted Major announced his intention to give up his party's leadership and leave the political world after a transition can be completed.
"When the curtain falls, it's time to get off the stage, and that's what I propose to do," said Major, who led Britain for 6 1/2 years.
He then went to his favorite cricket ground, the Oval, in south London. He told reporters, "Where else would I go on a day like today when the sun is shining?"
The Conservatives now contemplate the bloody prospect of a leadership fight, which could take place by mid-June. And the party's squabbles over Europe are sure to continue.
Contenders for the crown include former treasury chief Kenneth Clark, who announced his candidacy yesterday, and John Redwood, dubbed the Vulcan and a loser in a leadership battle with Major in 1995.
The party could also turn to a senior figure, Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister who chased Margaret Thatcher from office in 1990. William Hague and Michael Howard, former ministers who represent the party's right wing, may also get a look.
Liberal Democrats 16.7%
SEATS WON (330 needed for majority)
Labor, 419 (273 held, 146 gained)
Conservatives, 165 (165 held, 178 lost)
Liberal Democrats, 46 (18 held, 30 gained, 2 lost)
Scottish National, 6
Plaid Cymru, 4
Ulster Unionist, 10
Democratic Unionist, 2
United Kingdom Unionist, 1
Social Democrat and Labor, 3
Sinn Fein, 2
Average swing to Labor from Conservatives: 10.2%
From wire reports
Pub Date: 5/03/97