Labour Landslide in Britain Boosts Europe Ties, Women

Blair names record five females to his Cabinet; routed Tories in disarray.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's first Labour Party government in 18 years has begun rewriting the nation's political agenda. Tony Blair, who last Thursday became at 43 the youngest prime minister since 1812, is promising "a radical approach" at home and abroad and "a new era of hope."

Following a landslide election victory May 1, he has appointed a record five women to his cabinet. One of them, Ann Taylor, now is leader of the House of Commons. Margaret Beckett is president of the Board of Trade, charged with promoting British trade and industry. They are among more than 100 women elected to the 659-seat House of Commons, nearly double the number in the last Parliament.

Meanwhile, the badly defeated Conservative Party is facing a bitter leadership battle.

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Mr. Blair's huge majority of 179 seats in Parliament, says political analyst Anthony King, "means that he is excellently positioned to govern with real authority. No Labour government has ever won so handsomely, and no Tory party has lost so badly since 1832."

The new prime minister has put four issues at the top of his list of priorities:

"Constructive engagement" with Europe. New Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says the government will defend British interests while embracing the European Union's charter of workers' rights. The Conservative government had rejected the charter.

Restarting peace talks on Northern Ireland. Within hours of her appointment, new Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlem flew to the province and began to explore the possibility of relaunching the stalled peace process.

A "radical overhaul" of the welfare state. Over the weekend, Blair appointed a duo of senior ministers to oversee reforms.

A vote on local parliaments for Scotland and Wales and a bill of human rights for the whole country. The new prime minister has confirmed his intention to deliver on these campaign promises.

President Clinton congratulated Blair on Labour's victory in a phone call Friday. Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary, said Saturday that relations between the two leader are already good and "likely to get better."

Foreign Secretary Cook served notice Saturday that he plans to shed "the xenophobia of the Tories" and replace it with a vigorous approach aimed at "restoring Britain to its rightful place as one of Europe's Big Three," along with Germany and France. "We want to take Britain out of a position of isolationism and into being a leading member of an international community," he said.

More surprisingly, because Northern Ireland had not figured as a prominent election issue, Ms. Mowlem moved swiftly to make contact with the province's political leaders.

She told Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, that it could take a seat at new peace talks if the IRA restored the cease-fire that it broke in February 1996.

"The ball is now in Sinn Fein's court," she said in Belfast over the weekend.

On the home front, Blair is set to honor a campaign pledge to cut unemployment and restructure the welfare and health-care systems.

Gordon Brown, the new chancellor of the exchequer, confirmed Saturday that he will levy an estimated 5 billion ($8 billion) tax on utilities. Money from electricity and water companies privatized under Conservative Party rule, he said, "would help to put unemployed young people back in jobs."

Overseeing attempts to reform the social security system will be Harriet Harman, a senior Labour Party figure. She will work in tandem with Frank Fields, widely regarded as Britain's leading expert on welfare.

Labour's election platform contained a pledge to abandon the Conservative government's attempts to introduce market forces into the running of state-owned hospitals and clinics.

Blair has confirmed his pledge to give the people of Scotland and Wales the right to choose their own parliaments, which would operate with some autonomy from the Parliament in London.

One astonishing outcome of the election was the Conservatives' failure to win a single seat in Scotland or Wales. Donald Dewar, the new secretary for Scotland, is calling Scotland and Wales "Tory-free zones" and has promised both components of the United Kingdom that referendums on greater self-rule would be held later this year.

Meanwhile, any hopes of an orderly election to choose a new Conservative Party leader have received a double blow.

Michael Portillo, who was a senior Cabinet minister and a leading contender to replace outgoing Prime Minister John Major as head of the party, lost his seat in Parliament and is out of the picture. And Michael Heseltine, deputy prime minister under Mr. Major, has said he will not seek the post because of poor health.

Their removal from the race appeared to improve the chances of Kenneth Clarke, the outgoing chancellor of the exchequer who is a committed pro-European. He was quick to declare his candidacy last Friday.

Sources close to John Redwood, a leading Euro-skeptic who challenged Major for the leadership two years ago, said he was almost certain to contend.

The Conservatives went through the campaign profoundly divided on the issue of how quickly and how deeply Britain should become involved in Europe, such as through joining a common currency. Most analysts say that the divisions within the party on this issue played a large part in its defeat.

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