On Major's 100th day in office,attention shifts from gulf to home front Labor attacks economic slump

March 08, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major's 100th day in power yesterday was marked by a political watershed, with interest here shifting from war abroad to problems at home.

In the House of Commons, the opposition Labor Party made clear exactly where it will focus its attack from now on: the recession.

Why, asked deputy leader Roy Hattersley, were British manufacturing exports, investment, output, and employment all falling at the same time?

The prime minister, he said, would not "be able to run away from these issues forever."

Labor is gearing up for the next election, believing Mr. Major, in the glow of victory in the Persian Gulf, could call one as early as June. It will

seek to hold Mr. Major, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, personally responsible for the economy.

The polls show that Mr. Major is the most popular leader since Winston Churchill during World War II. But they also suggest that his personal standing has not been translated into broader party appeal.

In his 100 days in office, the ruling Conservatives have reversed a year-long Labor lead in the polls, but only by the narrowest of margins, not enough yet to enable them to seek a new -- and fourth -- mandate with any confidence.

Tory uncertainty was dramatically increased last night by a parliamentary by-election in what was regarded as the government's tenth safest seat in the country.

In the northern rural Ribble Valley, where the Conservatives won in the 1987 general election by 19,000 votes, the Liberal Democrats won last night by 4,601 votes, with 72 percent of eligible voters turning out.

Political observers generally viewed yesterday's vote as a referendum on the government's unpopular head tax.

Tory party officials claimed that by-elections are notoriously poor indicators of general election prospects.

But Kenneth Taylor, for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Conservatives have come a cropper here. It is the end of the John Major honeymoon. It is clear there was no John Major factor here."

Mr. Major's first 100 days have been sufficient to enable him to emerge from the shadow of his charismatic predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, and establish his own identity as an unashamedly gray man.

He sees his own ordinariness as an asset in a politician committed to creating a "truly classless society," and the voters, according to the polls, appreciate his public quiet as welcome relief from the stridency of the final Thatcher period.

Mr. Major was fresh back from his own travels yesterday: from Moscow, where he met President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and from the gulf, where he met British troops.

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