Tories Again

April 11, 1992

The Conservative government's re-election in Britain is the greatest comeback by an underdog ruling party since Harry Truman retained the U.S. presidency in 1948. With four election victories in 13 years, the current Tories are building the longest unbroken rule in modern British history.

Prime Minister John Major, a self-made and self-effacing man who won the party leadership and prime ministry in late 1990 after the imperious Margaret Thatcher outwore her welcome, finally comes into his own. A cabinet reshuffle can be expected, after which Mrs. Thatcher is history. This is, finally, a Major government.

Britain can be expected to consolidate rather than greatly extend the free market revolution associated with Mrs. Thatcher. Sell-offs of the nationalized railroad and coal mining industry are on the agenda. The highest rate of taxation of the rich is likely to come down. But the Conservative government has already abandoned Mrs. Thatcher's flat poll tax for local government. It is more likely to tinker with than abandon the basic principles of the National Health Service.

The greatest threat to the Conservative cabinet is internal division on managing a reluctant and cautious acquiescence in European trans-national institutions, particularly a central currency. Getting the nuances of this right is what brought Mr. Major to leadership in the party.

The Conservatives saw their huge majority of seats in the House of Commons dwindle from 101 in the 1987 election to 21, while their plurality of the popular vote fell only a fraction of a point, to 41.9 percent. The Labor Party's surge from 1987 was genuine, but came at the expense of the smaller parties and stopped short of overtaking the Conservatives. The Liberal Democratic and Scottish Nationalist booms collapsed.

The embarrassment of the opinion polls showed that, in Britain at least, people talk a bigger protest than they exercise. They are fed up with recession and with Conservative government, but distrust Labor more.

The Labor Party will indulge in boisterous introspection over the shift to the right that was led by Neil Kinnock. He will probably depart as leader after three lost elections. His policies were right, but too many voters were dubious about whether the party had really changed. Mr. Kinnock's personal reversals of position are more disquieting to voters than such switches seem to be in American politics. If Labor has sense, it will conclude that its moderation was not convincing enough, rather than that it was wrong.

Britain is back to basic two-party politics and to stable Conservative rule -- so long as the Conservatives temper their enthusiasm over their comeback victory with the moderation-provoking awareness that the majority of the British electorate actually voted to keep them out.

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