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Major: Britain's new prime minister

By KARIN DAVIES

LONDON -- John Major became Britain's youngest prime minister this century Wednesday, pledging to build on Margaret Thatcher's achievements by fostering 'a society of opportunity.'

Queen Elizabeth II completed Major's 11-year rise from newly elected member of Parliament to world leader by inviting him to form a new government during an audience at Buckingham Palace.

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Britain lost its longest-serving prime minister of the century earlier in the day when Thatcher tearfully left 10 Downing Street and tendered her resignation to the queen during a half-hour meeting.

Major, 47, the son of a circus performer who worked his way up from welfare recipient to chancellor of the exchequer, Britain's Treasury, said he saw the 1990s as 'a decade of the most remarkable opportunities.'

'In particular, I want to see us build a country that is at ease with itself, a country that is confident and a country that is prepared and willing to make the changes necessary to provide a better quality of life for all our citizens,' Major said outside the prime minister's residence, his wife, Norma, at his side.

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Picking up what may prove to be his main domestic theme, he said, 'I certainly hope ... to build a society of opportunity. By that I mean an open society, a society in which what people fulfill will depend upon their talent, their application and their good fortune.'

Major also suggested an influential role for Britain in the new European order, in apparent contrast to Thatcher's much-criticized tentativeness on economic and monetary unity in the European Community.

'We have in front of us the budding and development of an entirely new Europe, a budding and development in which this country will play a full and leading role,' Major said.

His first task is to sort out his new Cabinet. During a brief appearance at the House of Commons late Tuesday, he pledged to appoint a 'Cabinet of all talents.'

Major met Wednesday with Michael Heseltine, who initiated the leadership challenge that sealed Thatcher's fate, and appointed him environment secretary, giving him the taxk of dealing with the wildly unpopular poll, or head, tax.

Major named Norman Lamont to succeed him as chancellor of the exchequer, or treasury secretary. Lamont had been his assistant.

Douglas Hurd was reappointed foreign secretary, a critical post as the Persian Gulf crisis dominates world concern.

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Malcolm Rifkind was named Transport Cecretary to replace Cecil Parkinson, 59, a friend of Thatcher's who resigned. Parkinson had made a dramatic comeback to the Cabinet after quitting amid a sex scandal.

During his brief campaign for prime minister, Major, the youngest prime minister since Lord Rosebery in 1894 at age 46, stressed his humble origins. He joined the race last Thursday, after Thatcher said she would resign from office rather than risk losing to Heseltine in Tuesday's vote by Conservative members of Parliament for leadership of the ruling party.

Ironically, Major's 185 votes from the 372 Tory legislators came far short of the 204 votes Thatcher got in the first round of the leadership contest last week. But under party rules, Major needed only 187 votes to win the three-way battle in the second round.

Major fell two votes short, but the other two candidates -- Heseltine, 57, and Hurd, 60 -- immediately conceded defeat and the third-round ballot was cancelled.

Major takes charge of a badly divided party that he pledged to unify. 'There is no ill-feeling at the end of this contest for the leadership for the Conservative Party,' the new prime minister said. 'At the end of this week I believe that there is a smile on the face of the party that will mean we are fully united for the future.'

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Major is under close scrutiny by those who wonder whether he is a true child of Thatcherism or his own man.

The new prime minister paid tribute to the woman who groomed him for ascension to the nation's top post. 'I think history will record that (Thatcher) was a towering prime minister who left her country in a far better condition than she found it 11 years ago,' Major said. 'I hope in the next few years to build on those achievements.'

Thatcher, 65, bid an emotional farewell to a nation that carries her imprint. In 11 years as prime minister, Britain's first woman prime minister changed the course of British government and rekindled her country's international prestige.

'We are leaving Downing Street for the last time after 11 wonderful years and we are very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here 11 years ago, ' Thatcher, tears floodingher eyes, told reporters crowded on Downing Street. 'It has been a tremendous privilege to serve this country as prime minister.

'Now it's time for a new chapter to open, and I wish John Major all the luck in the world,' she said. 'He'll be splendidly served and he has the makings of a great prime minister, which I'm sure he'll be in a very short time.'

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Thatcher and her husband, Denis, went to their retirement home in Dulwich, southeast of London.

Major finally got a job in banking when he was 19 and doggedly worked his way up to chief press officer. He served on the south London's Lambeth Borough Council from 1968 to 1971.

He was elected to Parliament in 1979 for Huntingdon, and held a variety of low-level government posts until being named chief aide to then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson in 1987. After brief term as foreign secretary, he succeeded Lawson when he resigned abruptly in October 1989.

As chancellor of the exchequer, Major had overall responsibility for the British budget and economy.

He defended the controversial poll tax, which was crafted before he assumed the post; vigorously pursued a policy designed to curb Britain's 10.9 percent inflation; and attempted to ameliorate European criticism of Britain's reluctance to move toward a single currency by proposing a new currency that could be used across European borders while maintaining national currencies.

Last month he cut interest rates and took sterling into a European exchange-rate mechanism, a feat his predecessors failed to achieve in the face of objections from Thatcher.

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His official residence is at 11 Downing Street, next door to the prime minister. Upon hearing the result, Thatcher passed through the door linking the two brown-brick buildings to congratulate Major with an embrace.

Forced out by her own party, Thatcher found some solace in Major's victory. She singled him out in the early 1980s as her successor, impressed by his ability to challenge her with well-founded arguments and to accomplish much 'without breaking any bones,' according to her aide.

His reputation as a Thatcher pet earned him the nickname 'Poodle' in 1987.

Some members were asking whether Major would be donning a field marshal's hat or chauffeur's cap for his new job after Thatcher told party workers Monday she intends to be 'a very good backseat driver' following her resignation as the longest ruling prime minister this century.

Exactly what Major will be is unclear.

He remains untested on one of Thatcher's greatest strengths -- foreign policy. His three-month stint as foreign secretary last year left him inadequately briefed to handle global events, and he could be leading his nation into a war within months, if the Gulf crisis is not resolved through diplomacy.

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Major also lacks the flair Thatcher brought to the job, and is unlikely to master her ability of quelling opposition with a well-timed riposte.

He is, however, a political chameleon, appealing to Tories of all persuasions, and a man who is able to achieve consensus where others have failed.

'A week ago I thought our party had committed suicide. This result has brought me back to believing we can really win the next general election. I always believed John Major could do it,' said MP Marcus Fox said.

The Conservatives' standing in the polls soared after Thatcher announced she would resign Thursday.

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