LONDON – Outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged "unswerving support" for his successor at an emotional last meeting of his Cabinet on Thursday, and he said he was leaving at the right time. The session ended with a standing ovation.
Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who will take over as prime minister next week, in turn paid tribute to Blair — with whom he has had a sometimes fractious relationship.
"Whatever we achieve in the future will be because we are standing on your shoulders," Brown said.
Blair's official spokesman described it as "an event I'd never seen before. At the end of Cabinet, the prime minister was given a standing ovation by his colleagues. The only way to bring the standing ovation to a close was to leave the room."
For many of the lawmakers in the Cabinet room, this was also their last meeting: Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Home Secretary John Reid and Cabinet Office Minister Hilary Armstrong are all stepping down. Brown will be appointing his own Cabinet, which will likely see a change of faces around the antique table.
According to the official spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy, the meeting lasted about an hour — with the tributes to Blair taking up half the time.
"It was, in many ways, the most poignant meeting I've been to," said Jack Straw, who served as foreign secretary and home secretary in Blair's Cabinet and is now leader of the House of Commons. "I think we all felt a well in the back of our throats. It was a remarkable occasion."
Blair was presented with a painting of Chequers, the traditional country residence of British prime ministers, as a going-away present.
Lawmakers paid tribute to Blair for his achievements in both foreign and domestic policy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were mentioned, the spokesman said, and Blair's colleagues praised him for making those "difficult decisions."
Blair spoke at the end of the meeting, and thanked his staff, the civil service and his colleagues for their support during his decade at Downing Street.
"Of Gordon Brown, the prime minister said he had the qualities to make a great prime minister, and he said he would have his 'unswerving support,'" the spokesman said. "He finished by saying 'This is the right moment to go.'"
He was then asked if any of the Cabinet members banged their hands on the table in appreciation.
"Applause. I think people have due regard to the age of the Cabinet table," he said.
Blair announced he would step down on June 27 after more than 10 years in office, and the past month has been littered with his last appearance at various annual events. In early June, Blair attended his last Group of Eight summit, and this weekend's European Union summit will be his final international appearance as prime minister.
Blair's life after Downing Street has been a matter of speculation. Earlier this week, it was suggested that President Bush, a close ally, wants Blair to take the job of Middle East envoy for the Quartet of peacemakers — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Downing Street has refused comment on the reports.
Blair's spokesman said the final Cabinet meeting for Blair was warm, "but there was some sadness. It was a moment of good humor and very warm affection."