Britain is getting a new prime minister: Gordon Brown, a taciturn economist who has vowed to re-evaluate the country's policy in Iraq and tackle extremism with a lighter touch. And polls show — however unexpectedly — that the Labour Party is already benefiting from a "Brown bounce."
Brown, who must woo Britons still smarting over the war and head off a challenge from the revived opposition Conservative Party, on Wednesday will become the 11th prime minister invited to take office by Queen Elizabeth II.
His journey to Buckingham Palace — in a standard government sedan — ends a 13-year wait to step from outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair's shadow.
Blair, after a final weekly session taking questions from fellow lawmakers, will take the one-mile ride along the Mall from his Downing Street office to the palace in a chauffeur-driven, armor-plated limousine known as Pegasus.
Once Blair tenders his resignation, Brown will be summoned to the monarch's private quarters, where she will formally confirm him as prime minister during a closed-door audience. To officially become the British prime minister, the queen must invite the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons to form her government.
Once the meeting with the queen is over, the Court Circular — the official record of royal engagements — "will record that 'the Prime Minister Kissed Hands on Appointment,'" according to the Buckingham Palace Web site.
Blair will head to northern England to ponder life without the reins of power — and a likely new role in the Middle East.
Brown will prepare to launch a salvo of new policies and make appointments to his government to stamp his imprint on the country.
Ahead of the Conservatives
Brown's pledge to set a new direction at home and overseas has already brought a reward: An Ipsos-Mori poll on Sunday placed Labour ahead of the Conservatives for the first time since October.
Labour had the support of 39 percent among those planning to vote in the next election, with the Tories getting 36 percent, in the survey of 1,970 people taken June 14-20. No margin of error was given.
Most closely watched will be Brown's stance on Iraq, where British troop numbers have rapidly fallen through 2007 and soldiers are now stationed on the fringes of the southern city of Basra.
Blair has left his successor an option to call back more of the remaining 5,500 personnel by 2008, an opportunity likely to be grasped by a leader with a national election to call before June 2010.
"His hands, whilst not quite clean, are certainly not sullied," said Alasdair Murray, the director of CentreForum, a liberal think tank. Brown can "portray it as Blair's war and differentiate himself."
Brown may also sanction a future inquiry on Iraq, similar to the U.S. Iraq Study Group, British media have reported. Britain has to "admit where we make mistakes," Brown told a recent rally, referring to the war.
Focus stays on Mideast peace
Like Blair, Brown will seek to keep Britain at the heart of efforts over Mideast peace, hoping to focus on rebuilding the economies of the West Bank and Gaza, officials said.
But though he has also pressed the case for tougher action against Iran over its nuclear program, some uncertainty remains about Brown's likely foreign policy, U.S. analysts say.
"No one in Washington really knows what will change, because he has been remarkably silent on issues of international relations," said Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In Europe, bridges have been built with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Nicholas Sarkozy, but tensions are likely to emerge.
"Blair always had an eye on building up that currency called influence," said Neil O'Brien director of the London-based Open Europe think tank. "Brown is likely to be more ready to put his foot down and say no."
Challenges abound at home too, with Brown promising to reverse Blair's trend for a "sofa style" government, with key decisions made on the roomy couches of the leader's office rather than the green leather pews of the House of Commons.
His domestic legislative inbox groans with familiar themes: reorganizing education, improving public health and winning support for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
But Brown has also said he will seek to aid young Britons priced out of a booming housing market — and secure their votes — with a mass house-building program.
Brown will also attempt to look beyond his Labour Party to fill roles in the new government — just as Sarkozy did in appointing Socialist lawmakers to his legislative team.