LONDON -- The shape of post-Thatcher Britain began to emerge yesterday as the challengers to succeed to the premiership laid out their political wares.
The most dramatic vision was presented by Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, who promised this most stratified of societies a classless meritocracy by the end of the century.
Mr. Major, a self-made man with a working-class background who dropped out of school at 16, said, "We will have to make changes so that across the whole country we have a genuinely classless society so that people, according to their ability or good fortune, can rise to whatever position."
He emphasized the importance of "social mobility, opportunity and choice," adding, "There has been an undervaluation of the skills of blue-collar workers."
At 47, he is the youngest claimant to be Britain's next prime minister, but yesterday he was already counting on his side one-third of the 372 Conservative members of Parliament who will make the choice Tuesday.
He said the next general election would be won or lost "essentially on the economy." As chancellor of the exchequer, Mr. Major manages that economy and has set his sights firmly on reducing inflation through maintaining high interest rates at
the price of recession.
The other major issue would be re-establishing party unity, Mr. Major said, sounding a theme also adopted by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the other candidate to enter the fray since Margaret Thatcher's resignation Thursday after a first-round ballot victory was blocked by former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine.
Mr. Hurd, who claims about 100 votes, including five Cabinet ministers, for the second-round ballot, distanced himself from Mrs. Thatcher's autocratic style of government, saying, "I think that a democratic government consists of listening and deciding and persuading, in that order."
The top domestic priority of a Hurd government would be to make Mrs. Thatcher's unpopular head tax, a flat levy on rich and poor alike, "fairer and more acceptable."
Mr. Heseltine said he was "relieved" at Mrs. Thatcher's departure because it cleared the way for the party to make "a positive decision."
"There is no shadow of doubt we are on the way towards the unity that is going to secure our election victory," he said, referring to the next general election, which must be held within 19 months.
He acknowledged there was scant policy difference between the three contenders but added, "The issue is very simple: How are we going to win the next general election? My view is that it comes to winning back the essential votes the party has lost. . . .
"All the evidence is I have a particular following among these people."
Last night the parliamentarians who will choose their new leader -- and the country's next prime minister -- headed for their constituencies to sound out local opinion.