Conservatives choose Major to lead Britain Heseltine, Hurd withdraw after round of voting

November 28, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major was selected yesterday as the new Conservative Party leader and prime minister to succeed Margaret Thatcher, marking a change of both era and generation in British politics.

Mr. Major, 47, fell two votes short of the 187-vote majority required for an outright victory in yesterday's balloting for the leadership of the Conservative Party, but his two opponents quickly conceded and pledged themselves to unity. He thus will become Britain's youngest prime minister since William Pitt the younger took office at the age of 24 in 1783.

Mrs. Thatcher, 65, is to tender her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace this morning after 11 years in power, and within an hour Mr. Major will be invited to form a new government. He will move into 10 Downing St. as soon as Mrs. Thatcher moves out today.

The voting yesterday was between Mr. Major, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, 60, and former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, 57, who launched the challenge to Mrs. Thatcher earlier this month.

Mr. Heseltine won 131 votes. Mr. Hurd won 56. Both then threw their support behind Mr. Major, pre-empting the prospect of a divisive third-round ballot tomorrow.

Mr. Major was Mrs. Thatcher's choice as successor, and he has committed himself to "building on" her achievements.

want everyone in the party to rally behind him so he can go on to win a fourth general election," Mrs. Thatcher said last night. "I wish him every success."

Mr. Major, son of a circus trapeze performer, ran his campaign as "a man of the people." He left school at 16, was unemployed for a period and failed a math test for bus conductors before going on to make his reputation in banking.

Mrs. Thatcher groomed him for power over the past three years, appointing him to the Department of Social Security, the Foreign Office and the Treasury. His rise was one of the most meteoric in modern British politics.

has pledged himself to create a "classless society" in this most stratified of societies by the end of the century.

"It is a very exciting thing to become leader of the Conservative Party, and particularly exciting to follow one of the most remarkable leaders the Conservative Party has ever had," Mr. Major said last night.

"Our job now is quite clear. We are going to unite. We are going to unite totally and absolutely, and we are going to win the next election."

The next election has to be called by summer 1992. For most of the last year, the opposition Labor Party has enjoyed a double-digit lead in national polls, but the most recent soundings have suggested that Mr. Major could beat Labor. Britain's largest bookmakers made the Conservatives 8-to-11 favorites yesterday for re-election.

Labor leader Neil Kinnock, 48, quickly dubbed Mr. Major the "no-change, no-majority prime minister," portraying him as a Thatcher clone. "Britain will be given more of the same," he said.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Social Democrats, said: "He has put himself forward as the preserver of Thatcherism. If that is true, nothing changes. It is Thatcherism with a different face."

But in the Conservative ranks, the emergence of Mr. Major as leader was heralded as a political sea change, ending the divisive period of latter-day autocratic Thatcher rule, opening the way for more cooperative Cabinet government and introducing a new brand of "caring conservatism."

Tony Newton, the secretary of social services, said last night: "Anybody who thinks John Major is anybody's poodle and not his own man has got another thing coming. Anybody who sees John as somebody without a very strong interest in social affairs and a genuine interest in people who are less well off has another thing coming."

Ironically, Mr. Major's victory vote yesterday was smaller than Mrs. Thatcher's support in the first leadership ballot last week, a vote that led to her decision to step down.

Mr. Major got 185 votes in the second-round ballot of the 372 TC Conservative members of parliament, and 187 of his parliamentary colleagues voted against him.

In the first round, Mrs. Thatcher got 204 votes, four short of outright victory in the initial ballot (which required a greater majority) and too few to persuade her and her supporters that she would not be humiliated had she continued to fight.

Mr. Major is expected to offer Mr. Heseltine either the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department of the Environment.

Mr. Hurd is expected to stay as foreign minister in the new government.

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