Major insists on following Thatcher in his own style New prime minister shuns her image of heartlessness

January 03, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- In the few weeks since he replaced Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister, John Major has produced TC political cocktail of continuity and contrast.

He has sought to establish his own identity without divorcing himself from Thatcherism. It has been a balancing act of which his late father, a circus trapeze artist, would have been proud.

If Mrs. Thatcher insisted on her lieutenants' coming from the exclusive group whose members she referred to as "one of us," Mr. Major appears intent on portraying himself as "one of them," a likable and identifiable ordinary man, a member of the crowd.

He has rejected outright the notion that the image-makers might be able to turn him from a pale shade of gray into something more appealing. He says he would prefer to remain his "plug-ugly" self. Grayness, he believes, can be a virtue.

Mr. Major also likes to be called a "social liberal," a label that sits cozily with his commitment to "caring conservatism."

It is in shifting away from the perceived heartlessness of Mrs. Thatcher that Mr. Major already has emerged most strikingly from her shadow.

In his first weeks, he has authorized compensation to hemophilia patients accidentally infected with the AIDS virus (which she rejected), announced a new drive to provide shelter for the homeless (whom she ignored) and found money to employ more consultants to ease the workload of harassed junior doctors (who sought her sympathy in vain).

Shrewdly he has played a public part in announcing such initiatives, using the televised prime minister's question time in the House of Commons to maximum advantage.

His aides are at pains to counter the notion that he is a soft touch. They assert that he is spending no more money on hardship causes than did Mrs. Thatcher. But they acknowledge that the perception is dramatically different.

"John Major has to prove that he is more than just a nice chap with a checkbook," harrumphed the business-minded Economist, adding: "Now he will have to get used to being disliked."

Mr. Major is credited with rising through the party ranks without creating any obvious enemies. It must be doubtful that he can exercise power effectively and remain universally popular.

He is still enjoying a honeymoon period with the voters. Polls show he outscores both Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown by a wide margin in public confidence in his personal qualities and his grasp of the issues.

A Harris poll for the Observer found him judged more sincere, more caring, less extreme, cleverer and even tougher than the others.

It further credited him with being more clued in on the economy, the Persian Gulf crisis and Europe -- not bad for the new boy on the block.

It also found that he had re-established the Conservative Party's lead in the polls after a year of Labor dominance. The opposition is resting its hope of a comeback on the deteriorating state of the economy.

On the major issues, at home and abroad, Mr. Major continues to hew closely to the Thatcher line.

Domestically, inflation remains Enemy No. 1, and he has not shrunk from pushing the economy into deeper recession to squeeze it out. But there will be no interest rate cut -- however much business, commerce and mortgagees may squeal -- until he is confident that inflation is in full retreat.

His room for maneuver is also limited by the pound's recent inclusion in the European exchange rate mechanism. This limits trading in sterling to within a band of the values of major continental currencies.

The pound is already at the bottom of the band, and a reduction in interest rates would undermine confidence in Britain's commitment to the discipline of the exchange agreement.

More popularly, Mr. Major has committed himself to reform, if not repudiation, of the head tax that contributed to Mrs. Thatcher's downfall.

Abroad, he has quickly changed the tone of Britain's relationship with its European partners, a retreat from Thatcherite confrontation that provoked Mr. Kinnock to suggest he had simply put "pleasantry in place of policy."

He has signaled that while retaining many of Mrs. Thatcher's misgivings about the rush to European unity, he is prepared to play a more positive role in mapping out the community's future.

As he demonstrated in Washington last month, he is intent on fostering the Anglo-American "special relationship" and is as firmly behind U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf as was his predecessor.

It has not taken him long to demonstrate where, when and how he is prepared to follow her lead or go his own way.

"Of course, it will not always be such bliss to be alive," observed Peter Jenkins, Mrs. Thatcher's biographer, in his regular political column for the Independent. "We cannot yet know how crises will be managed, hard choices made, authority exercised or words found to excite and move the country.

"We can imagine John Major as a consummate politician and party leader for the moment, a salvage expert . . . less easily as someone who will know what it is he wants to do, and how to do it, once the storm is safely navigated."

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