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Packing up for the movers at Downing Street

It has been 54 years since Britain experienced an actual coronation, but it came awfully close in Manchester yesterday, as an overflow crowd of jubilant Labour Party members proclaimed Gordon Brown their country's next prime minister - without any vote or contest, but with repeated standing ovations.

Mr. Brown, a 56-year-old Scot who has served for the past 10 years under the shadow of Prime Minister Tony Blair in a sometimes deeply fractious relationship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, will now automatically become prime minister on Wednesday, when Mr. Blair fulfils his election promise to step down.

Yet, in addressing his party yesterday, Mr. Brown wasted no time in signalling that change, at home and abroad, is in the offing.

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"This week, I will form a new government with new priorities to meet the new challenges ahead," Mr. Brown said to wild applause, after he had been acclaimed leader. In announcing that he will "heed and lead the call of change," he then proceeded to use the word "change" 26 more times.

To many outsiders, both in Britain and abroad, those were surprising words for a man who will be moving only a few metres this week, from the Chancellor's Office at 11 Downing Street to the Prime Minister's Office at No. 10 (in fact, part of the prime minister's lodgings are located upstairs at No. 11).

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Brown was the co-author of Mr. Blair's New Labour formula of market-driven growth tied to a socially activist state. He was largely responsible for his party's domestic policy for the past decade, promising to reverse the implicit errors of the previous regime by "changing our country" and introducing a new sort of politics.

To the loyalists of the Labour Party, this was obvious. Mr. Brown, one told reporters yesterday, was "the real thing, everything we've been wanting all along." He is seen as being a man of principle, against Mr. Blair's cold pragmatism. He played on that image yesterday, declaring that, "the party I lead must have more than a set of policies; we must have a soul."

Yet there are legitimate reasons to believe that Mr. Brown will be a very different sort of prime minister from Mr. Blair. And those differences may be most visible to citizens of other countries.

His aides have repeatedly stated that he is not as interested in maintaining the "special relationship" with the United States that came to define Mr. Blair's policy in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, often to his disadvantage at home.

Mr. Brown is more aggressively involved in European Union matters, as was seen this weekend, when he angrily phoned Mr. Blair at 3 a.m., according to newspaper reports, to try to preserve an EU constitutional clause that would protect business competition from government interference - a matter of minimal interest to the departing Prime Minister.

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The Chancellor has also made quiet efforts to distance himself from the Iraq war, making it known that his vote in favour of the conflict was made out of grudging necessity. Yesterday, he declared that Iraq had been "a divisive issue for our party and our country" and promised to "learn lessons that need to be learned," though not to withdraw troops at any specific time.

But on many matters, the difference on Wednesday will be one of language more than substance: Mr. Brown talks openly, as he did in yesterday's speech, of "social justice" and "equality" - concepts that Mr. Blair banished from his party's lexicon in favour of phrases such as "consumer choice" and "meeting targets," believed to be more appealing to middle-class voters.

Mr. Brown pledged yesterday, in old-style social-democratic language, to provide more affordable housing amidst Britain's unprecedented real-estate boom; to solve problems that still plague the country's public-health system, after spending vast sums on it over the past decade; to raise the amount spent on each high-school student (currently $11,000) to the level spent by elite private schools ($16,000); and to eradicate child poverty.

Those words are in line with Mr. Brown's political image within the party: He proudly identifies himself with the Fabian movement, the democratic-socialist reformists who launched his party a century ago, and his aides, in off-the-record briefings, say that he is not interested in the more business-oriented solutions to social problems championed by Mr. Blair.

But such promises could be hard to fulfill, as they will almost certainly be tempered by Mr. Brown's other famous quality: the fiscal discipline and economic skill that allows him to boast that his policies have created 40 consecutive quarters of economic growth.

He is unlikely to veer from his policy of keeping public spending to around 40 per cent of gross domestic product, a target that has angered some on the party's left. This has been relatively easy in the years since 1997, since record economic growth has kept tax revenues rising, and allowed his government to introduce record-breaking spending increases on health and education.

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But Mr. Brown may be moving next door to 10 Downing Street just as the economy is headed for a downturn; with rising interest rates and lagging growth, it will be much harder to keep improving Britain's social services without raising taxes.

This contradiction was missed, or perhaps politely ignored, in Manchester yesterday. Mr. Blair offered his most sincere-seeming peace offering to Mr. Brown yet, appearing on stage yesterday to praise his old sparring partner as having "all the qualities to mark him out as a great prime minister." (Newspapers yesterday revealed that Mr. Blair had gone as far as drafting cabinet documents to fire Mr. Brown in 2005, at the height of their long-standing feud.)

For the moment, the Labour Party seemed truly to believe in "change," whatever that meant, and the ovations were the most enthusiastic the party has seen in a decade.

Apparently, this view is shared outside the party ranks, as Mr. Brown's popularity rose yesterday to 39 per cent, according to a poll published in The Observer, putting him ahead of Conservative Leader David Cameron, who attracted 36 per cent.

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