Persian Gulf Winner

March 22, 1991

`TC President Bush cannot take advantage of sudden popularity from the Persian Gulf war to win re-election before the allotted time, November of next year, by which time the winds of fortune may have shifted. Prime Minister John Major of Britain, however, can do just that. He threw British force east of Suez for the first time in three decades, to the cheers of the British electorate. He went out to visit the British forces in Kuwait City, photographed atop a tank in casual sweater. He came into office a loser, and looks a winner.

When Conservative members of Parliament replaced Margaret Thatcher with Mr. Major last November, their party was hopelessly behind in the polls and almost certain to lose the election that must be called by June 1992. Inflation and recession were undoing Thatcher prosperity. Her strident anti-Europeanism made cabinet colleagues uncomfortable. Her revolution in local government taxation made the voters furious, provoking civil disobedience. Low-key Mr. Major was not widely expected to turn the mood around quickly.

The war helped him do that. Then he went to Germany to reverse Mrs. Thatcher's rhetoric and pronounce himself a good European. And now he has reversed what the British people call a "poll tax" and their officials a "community charge."

Formerly, British local government was funded by a property tax much like Maryland's. The centerpiece of Mrs. Thatcher's third term was to scrap it for the "community charge," by which a local council would tax every person equally, and could raise or lower the amount. Her notion was that councils would be more responsible if their taxing was so visible, and that everyone consuming local services should pay equally for them. Even Tory local officials hated the change.

Now the Major government has promised to abandon the innovation. The next system will be a compromise, taxing property plus the number of adults living in it. Meanwhile, the Treasury has lowered interest rates, a typical sign of a pending election. The vote which must be held by June 1992 could come a year earlier. The change is announced in time to affect the May 2 voting for local councils. If the Tories win those, watch out for a parliamentary election on a month's notice. If it materializes, Prime Minister Major will have used the gulf war for instant political advantage. President Bush, eat your heart out.

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