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Britain's Brown burnishs image as future leader

Written by: Staff
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BASRA, Iraq, Nov 19 (Reuters) Britain's lugubrious finance minister Gordon Brown seems determined to burnish his image as a future prime minister with high-profile photo-ops from a pep talk to troops in Iraq to presenting pop awards.

The 55-year-old Scot, accused by critics of lacking the charisma to lead the country, flew into the southern Iraqi city of Basra at the weekend to rally British troops there.

''You are the tigers! Proud and courageous tigers!'' he yelled in an uncharacteristically passionate speech to 300 soldiers from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, known as the Tigers.

''Everyone in Britain is proud of you,'' he said, shouting without a microphone over the noise of the army base.

It was the latest in a series of high-profile events attended by Brown, who is widely expected to take over from Prime Minister Tony Blair, possibly as soon as May.

Last week, he presented a British music award to producer George Martin, dubbed the fifth Beatle for his work on the group's records.

The son of a clergyman, Brown's serious manner earned him respect as Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he won plaudits from both political allies and rivals alike for his handling of the economy.

But many question how easily he can step into the shoes of the perennially cheerful Blair, and revive a Labour party undermined by the war in Iraq and beset by financial scandals.

After nine years in power, the Labour party is lagging in the polls to a Conservative opposition galvanised by youthful new leader David Cameron.

TIRELESS WORKHORSE A tireless workhorse, Brown kept studying his brief impassively as his military helicopter to Basra lurched wildly from left to right while flying just 50 feet above the ground in order to dodge any missile attack.

Once there, he met with dozens of soldiers -- Britain has around 7,200 troops stationed in and around Basra -- listening to their stories of missions and dangers, often running overtime to the annoyance of his minders.

''You deserve a break. I bet you're looking forward to that.

Well done,'' he said, shaking hands with the troops.

And he went on to suggest in an interview with Reuters that British troop numbers in Iraq could soon be reduced as the Iraqi economy gets back on its feet.

With Iraq widely perceived as Labour's biggest failure, any move to withdraw from the region could provide an early boost to Brown and draw a line between him and Blair.

Certainly, Brown, a canny politician, surprised everyone on taking office in 1997 by giving the Bank of England the power to set interest rates -- a bold move that immediately made his reputation.

He is now expected to set out a vision of what his premiership would look like in a pre-budget report on December 6.

He has identified transport, security and the environment as major challenges facing Britain over the next decade.

REUTERS SP BS2036

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