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New U.K. Prime Minister Keir Starmer met the king, gave a speech, got to work

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LONDON — Britain’s politics have been volatile and chaotic, but this country sure knows how to execute a swift, orderly transfer of power. On Friday, Labour leader Keir Starmer became the 58th prime minister in the nation’s history. The loser, the outgoing Conservative Rishi Sunak, told the people he was sorry. Then he went home.

Sunak took the official armored Jaguar to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation. His meeting with King Charles III was private. It lasted 20 minutes. In and out. Sunak will continue to serve as a lawmaker in the House of Commons, and for a short time as leader of the Conservative Party, until his successor is chosen. His party — very cross with Sunak today — might move expeditiously.

With Sunak dispatched, in quick order Starmer and his wife, Victoria, took another armored Jaguar through the swinging gates of the palace. In the “kissing of hands” ritual — which takes place without any kissing — the monarch asked him to form a new government. Away went Starmer, back to 10 Downing Street to give a six-minute speech. Then he got to work.

Starmer’s Labour Party won in a landslide, coming in just shy of the vote captured by Tony Blair in 1997.

For Conservatives — facing the worst defeat in the history of their party in its modern form — it felt like a culling. Top ministers and brand-name Tory “grandees” lost their seats — including a former prime minister, Liz Truss, infamous for lasting only 49 days in Downing Street after she almost crashed the economy with a plan for unfunded tax cuts.

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The tally of the ballots took most of the night. But there were no wild recounts, no charges of a steal.

After it was all over, the two combatants managed to say nice things about each other.

Sunak called Starmer a “decent, public-spirited man.” Starmer praised Sunak for his “hard work.”

Sunak, after conceding the race in the dawn hours, told his constituents: “Power will change hands in a peaceful and orderly manner, with good will on all sides. That is something that should give us all confidence in our country’s stability and future.”

In his farewell speech at 10 Downing Street, Sunak appeared most heartfelt when he mentioned his family.

“One of the most remarkable things about Britain is just how unremarkable it is,” he said. “Just two generations after my grandparents came here with little, I can become prime minister and … I can watch my two young daughters light Diwali candles on the step in Downing Street.”

Sunak is the son of Hindu immigrants of Punjabi descent who came from East Africa to Britain. Diwali candles are lit during the Hindu festival of lights.

“We must hold true to that idea of who we are — that vision of kindness, decency and tolerance,” the now former prime minister said.

Starmer recognized Sunak’s “achievement as the first British Asian prime minister of our country.” Starmer’s own roots are working class; his parents were a nurse and a toolmaker. In his Downing Street remarks, he talked about the need to establish “the security that working class families like mine can build their lives around.”

There was something different about Starmer on Friday — notable enough for the BBC to spend some minutes on the topic. The difference was that he was smiling.

He spent the six weeks campaigning with resting dour face. Even as the opinion polls suggested he was going to win big, Starmer never broke character. He was the serious, sensible moderate who took nothing for granted, and he recognized the gloomy mood of the country.

Outside his new home and office at Downing Street, Starmer promised he and his government would undertake “a calm and patient rebuilding” of the country in “a mission of national renewal.” The 61-year-old lawyer said there was “a weariness in the heart of the nation” and that the people were tired of empty promises and performative politics. “This wound, this lack of trust can only be healed by actions, not words,” he said.

The new leader said his team would “defy, quietly, those who have written our country off.”

That phrase, “defy, quietly” could also sum up his political career. Many people wrote off Labour. They wrote Starmer off as a leader. And they were wrong.

Starmer spent the afternoon appointing his cabinet, naming two women and a Black man to serve with him in the four “great offices of state.”

Rachel Reeves is the first female chancellor of the exchequer, which is similar to finance minister. Reeves, 45, acknowledged the significance of her appointment on social media, writing: “to every young girl and woman reading this, let today show that there should be no limits on your ambitions.”

Reeves, a former economist at the Bank of England, told the BBC she faced some empty coffers. “There’s not a huge amount of money there,” she said. “I know the scale of the challenge I inherit.”

David Lammy — a pal of President Barack Obama — was named foreign minister. A son of Guyanese immigrants, he figured he is the “first foreign secretary to be able to trace my lineage back to Africa through the Atlantic slave triangle trade.”

Yvette Cooper is the new home secretary. Angela Rayner is the deputy prime minister.

One of the surprises of the election was that Nigel Farage, a populist disrupter and a friend of Donald Trump’s, finally won a seat in Parliament on this, his eighth attempt.

Farage is arguably one of the most influential politicians in Britain. He was one of the key campaigners behind Brexit. But until now, he has mostly heckled from the sidelines — and from Brussels, where he served as an anti-European Union member of the European Parliament.

At his post-election news conference, it was Farage’s turn to be heckled. Some protesters shouted “racist” before they were escorted out by security. Reports of racism and sexism from Reform UK activists and candidates during the campaign elevated concerns about enduring prejudice in the party. On Friday, Farage said, “Those few bad apples that have crept in will be long gone, and we will never have any of their type back in our organization.”

He vowed to professionalize his movement, which will now hold four seats in Parliament, and to be “the opposition around the country,” putting pressure on Labour.

With all the churn, one civil servant remained on duty. Downing Street’s Larry the cat, the long-serving resident of the official residence, was spotted outside, avoiding the rain, and, sort of, welcoming his sixth prime minister. The brown-and-white tabby, whose official title is Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, will reportedly by joined by the Starmer family cat, JoJo.

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