LONDON -- John Major, the chancellor of the exchequer who rose out of one of London's toughest neighborhoods, took office today as Britain's prime minister.
Major, 47, who had been Margaret Thatcher's chosen heir, arrived at Buckingham Palace where Thatcher formally presented her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, who asked Major to form a new government.
Major, whose father was a circus trapeze artist, was elected leader of the Conservative Party to replace Thatcher, whose resignation under pressure last week surprised the nation.
The Conservatives' choice of Major, a Thatcher protege, came after a battle pitting him against two other contenders for the party leadership, former Secretary of Defense Michael Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. The three-way race took shape last week when Thatcher, stunned by Heseltine's strong showing in the first-round voting for party leader, resigned.
In yesterday's closed-door balloting among the 372 Tory members of the House of Commons, Major got 185 votes -- just two votes shy of the total he needed for an outright victory. But as party members began preparing themselves for tomorrow's runoff between Major and runner-up Heseltine, both Heseltine, with 131 votes, and Hurd, with 56, threw their support to Major.
Thatcher said she was thrilled by Major's victory, adding that he was her favorite among the three contenders.
"It is a very exciting thing to become leader of the Conservative Party, and particularly exciting, I think, to follow one of the most remarkable leaders the Conservative Party has ever had," Major said last night.