Major, Conservatives appear headed for defeat in two British elections

May 05, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major, skittering around among the most dissatisfied voters in a generation, faces two elections in just over a month which can decide Britain's place in the European Union and his future as Conservative Party leader and prime minister.

Within the Conservative Party, the most disaffected are the Euro-skeptics, members of Parliament and the Cabinet who dislike the European Union and some who would even pull Britain out of it.

L The European issue runs through the party like a fault line.

The temblors may come after Britons vote in local elections today and for representatives to the European Parliament on June 9.

Mr. Major and his Conservatives look certain to be big losers in both.

TC Support for the party has fallen to its lowest point since it was came into power with Margaret Thatcher 15 years ago.

Less than 20 percent of the voters are satisfied with Mr. Major's performance and 75 percent are unhappy, according to a poll for the Times,

21 points behind Labor

His party has fallen 21 percentage points behind the opposition Labor Party and is only 3 points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, who are the big gainers in the general disillusionment with

politicians.

If today's elections reflect the polls, voters will turn out hundreds of Conservatives from local councils across the country.

Analysts from left to right say key battles will be fought in the London suburbs, where the Financial Times sees the possibility of an "unprecedented" Conservative collapse.

Those areas held steady for the Conservatives in the 1990 general election and helped keep Mr. Major in office.

Even though council elections will focus on local concerns, they may be decided on national issues. Conservatives fear that today's elections and the European Union vote will turn into referendums on the national government.

The Labor Party downplays predictions of a triumphant sweep. Party strategists warn that Labor won in so many places in 1990 that it can't do as well this time.

Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, points out that Conservatives would, in fact, need only asmall swing from Labor to win control of Birmingham, the second largest-city in the United Kingdom.

But if things go as badly for the Conservatives as expected, there is no shortage of aspirants for Mr. Major's party leadership role -- and a head start toward being the Conservative candidate in the next general election.

They are openly casting for support among the rank-and-file members of Parliament.

In terms of political etiquette, that's more tacky than lobbying for a bigger share of your rich uncle's estate before he's dead -- especially tacky in a party that has prided itself on political discipline.

Insiders express horror at the possibility of tossing out the

second prime minister in four years. Margaret Thatcher was, of course, the other one.

On Sunday, Agriculture Minister Gillian Shepherd, one of Mr. Major's more loyal supporters, called the backstage canvassing of members of Parliament by Conservative contenders "crazy."

'Conservative' opposition

Ms. Shepherd said it "undermines Mr. Major's authority and is undermining confidence and stability and unsettles colleagues. There are at least two oppositions in the House of Commons and one of them is Conservative."

Her targets were partisans of Michael Heseltine, the dapper and leonine president of the board of trade, and Michael Portillo, treasury chief secretary, a man with a very large head of hair and a very large ego, who are trying to elbow themselves into position to replace Mr. Major should he falter.

Mr. Portillo, the standard bearer of the Thatcherite right, is a leading Euro-skeptic who warned last weekend that a single European currency would end British independence and sovereignty.

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