Britain: a change of premier or politics?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - On Wednesday, Gordon Brown will officially step into the shoes of British prime minister vacated for him by Tony Blair. Does it mean that on Thursday the British public will awaken in a country with a new foreign and domestic policy?

The answer is unknown even to the highest-placed British politicians. More than that, you get a feeling that the Labor Party's management has thought up and effected a Brown-for-Blair operation in order to create the illusion of sea change, nothing more.

The party has a new leader, and the country a new prime minister. What else? By installing a new man at 10 Downing Street, the party seems to have shed all the mistakes and setbacks associated with the name of Tony Blair - Iraq, the titles-for-money scandal, rising taxes, the limping national health system, and so on and so forth.

So it appears that the main and seemingly only change has already taken place. Labor members unhappy with Tony Blair may consider themselves victorious. And the British electorate can boldly march to the ballot boxes in two years' time, looking neither left nor right for other politicians from alternative parties to fulfill their wishes.

This is what one feels after reading Gordon Brown's first speech as Labor leader at a party congress in Manchester.

The new prime minister's domestic policy has rather blurred outlines. Brown promises to improve all aspects of the British way of life. The new prime minister has included among his immediate priorities the modernization of the education system, the ending of the crisis with affordable social housing, and a National Health Service (NHS) reform giving personnel and patients more rights and powers. A Russian observer might be reminded of the national projects launched in Russia in recent years.

Moscow is eager to know the new British prime minister's perspective on London's place and role in international affairs. But the future prospects of external policy can only be glimpsed through a dense fog in Brown's debut speech. Regarding Iraq, the prime minister tentatively admits that this is "a divisive issue for our party and our country" and promises to "learn lessons that need to be learned."

This is not enough to determine whether Brown will pull British troops out of Iraq, as many Brits would like him to do. Or whether the servile fawning on the United States, the hallmark of his predecessor, will go on, only, perhaps, in a cooler and more detached way.

For lack of any telling indications, indirect signs acquire significance, like the line-up of political figures on the Lenin mausoleum in Soviet-era times. The meteoric rise of Harriet Harman, 56, a minister of state in the Ministry of Justice, is remarkable in this respect.

Harman is a British Anastas Mikoyan, a long-surviving politician. Her political career reads like a legend. Kicked out of Blair's cabinet in 1998, she leaped back in 2001 as the first female appointed to the Office of Solicitor General. She served in high ministerial posts and the other day was elected the deputy leader of the Labor Party. Brown there and then appointed his loyal follower to be party chair as well. This greatly adds to Harman's clout in national politics, bringing to mind her sharp opposition to Britain's involvement in the Iraqi conflict.

At the same time, both Harman and Brown have at different times said they are in favor of upgrading Britain's Trident nuclear missiles. Lately London has linked these plans with Russia's warning that it will have to target the components of an American missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland if such a system is really set up. Nevertheless, Moscow still nourishes the hope that the problem may be resolved through a sort of compromise, with or without the joint use of an Azeri radar.

The continuing uncertainty of the new British prime minister's domestic and foreign policy is playing into the hands of the ruling Labor Party. Ipsos MORI, a leading British public opinion research center, has registered a 4% rise in Labor's approval rating (up to 39%) compared with a fall in the popularity of their main rival - the Tories - (down to 36%).

In the next few months, Moscow will be closely watching one more factor. As he steps down, Blair bequeaths to his successor highly strained relations with Russia. The previous British government extended risky patronage to a group of escapees from Russian justice, including big-time economic swindlers and leaders of the terrorist underground in Chechnya. The criminal case of Alexander Litvinenko was overly politicized.

The feeling in Moscow is that all this does not sit well with the principles of genuine partnership, an old friendship between two cultures and good-neighborly traditions. Will a new premier mean new politics? Many in Russia are asking this question.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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