LONDON — John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as Britain's prime minister Wednesday and promised to preside over a Conservative government that would create "a society of opportunity--an open society."
At the end of his first day in office, the new prime minister announced a broad restructuring of the Cabinet designed to lead a strong, united government into the next election against the Labor Party.
Although few of the ministers were fired, Major put a fresh face on the Cabinet and made a strong gesture toward party unity, following the bitter infighting of the past month, by including in his government the two men who had been his strongest rivals for the party leadership.
He retained as his foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, 60, who ran third in the Tory party balloting Tuesday. And he named as his environment minister Michael Heseltine, 57, his closest runner-up in the race and the man whose challenge to Thatcher for leadership of the Conservatives last week staggered the prime minister and ultimately led to her resignation.
To fill his old exchequer post, the equivalent of U.S. Treasury secretary, Major named Norman Lamont, who had been his top treasury aide and who ran Major's short campaign for the Tory leadership. He retained Tom King as defense secretary.
The 47-year-old Major, a Thatcher protege, is Britain's youngest prime minister in this century.
After accepting the seal of office from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, the tall, gray-haired Major stood on the steps of 10 Downing St. with his wife, Norma, and declared that "a decade of the most remarkable opportunities" lay ahead of the country.
"I want to see us build a country that is at ease with itself," he said, "a country that is confident and a country that is able and willing to build a better quality of life for all its citizens."
Seeking to counter charges that Britain is less than a full-fledged member of the European Community, Major declared that the nation will play a "full and leading role" in building "an entirely new Europe."
Major paid tribute to the 65-year-old Thatcher, who left office after 11 1/2 years as prime minister, the longest term in this century. He called her a "towering" leader who "left our country in a far better condition than she found it."
Thatcher, wearing a plum-colored suit, tendered her resignation to the queen at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday morning, a day after the Conservative Party elected Major its leader and six days after she announced her intention to step down.
In an unprecedented series of party events, Thatcher failed to get the necessary majority in a leadership vote among Tory members of Parliament eight days ago, and she quit rather than face the prospect of a humiliating defeat in Tuesday's second round.
Major, her personal favorite, entered the race and ran ahead of Heseltine, a former defense secretary, and Foreign Secretary Hurd, who both then conceded the leadership to him Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday, Thatcher wished Major "all the luck in the world" and said, "He has the makings of a great prime minister, and I am sure he will be in a very short time."
Then, fighting back tears, she and her husband, Denis, left No. 10 for good.
In the new Cabinet, it will be Lamont's task to reduce inflation and interest rates and avoid a recession.
In Major's other appointments, Home Secretary David Waddington was moved to the House of Lords as party leader in the upper chamber, and Tory Party Chairman Kenneth Baker was shifted to the Home Office.
Environment Secretary Christopher Patten, one of the younger Cabinet stars, was made party chairman to tighten up the ranks of the Conservatives, who have suffered from by-election defeats and internal wrangling. He will direct the campaign for the next general election against the opposition Labor Party, which must be held within 18 months.
That opened the environment portfolio for Heseltine, who held the same job in Thatcher's first Cabinet in 1979. It is a complex office with the responsibility for local planning and for administering the controversial local tax known as the community charge, or poll tax.
Heseltine has been critical of the tax, which has proved to be the most unpopular domestic measure. Major has promised to review it.
For the first time in 25 years, there is no woman in the Cabinet.
Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had been witheringly critical of Major's predecessor, said Wednesday that the new prime minister was "just about as extreme and dangerous as Margaret Thatcher."
Major left his residence at 11 Downing St. as chancellor on Wednesday morning after Thatcher resigned, spent 30 minutes with the queen, and then went next door to take up residence at 10 Downing, the prime minister's office and private residence.
In calling for an open society in which people have wide opportunities, Major, a high school dropout, declared:
"I do not promise you that it will be easy, and I do not promise you that it will be quick, but I believe it is an immensely worthwhile job to do."