Blow to Britain

May 13, 1994

To the extent that anything is certain in politics, John Smith was certain to become prime minister after the next British election. Leading the Labor Party with a sure hand and ready wit since July 1992, its only current eminence with cabinet experience, Mr. Smith was as indispensable as anyone can be to the future of British politics.

The Conservative government, in power since 1979, is worn out, morally bankrupt and outliving its welcome. The failing goes far beyond the bland Prime Minister John Major. It is time for a change, and the opportunity must be offered to the electorate at the latest by April 1997.

Now all bets are off. Mr. Smith, 55, died yesterday of a heart attack. There is no substitute of sufficient stature in sight. The Labor Party will have to find one of sufficient growth potential, who can become prime ministerial in the public eye while leader of the opposition as Mr. Smith did.

They knew this might happen. Mr. Smith survived a massive heart attack in 1988. He convinced his colleagues four years later that he was recovered and healthy, no more likely than they to suffer a fatal heart attack on the job.

The Conservative government is given a respite. It still appears likely to suffer in imminent elections to the European Parliament and five vacancies in the House of Commons. But until the Labor Party has gotten its act together and upheld the legacy of John Smith -- loosening its bonds to trade unions and repudiating doctrinaire solutions while remaining the party that cares -- it is not ready to step in and govern.

Any on-going paralysis or internecine strife, after the autumn party conference, would tempt the Major government to spring a surprise election before a credible alternative has arisen.

What the Labor Party achieved under the pragmatic Scot, Mr. Smith, was a credibility that had been lacking. His predecessor, Neal Kinnock, led it most of the way there, but not to a win in the April 1992 election. It's not enough that the Conservatives deserve to get tossed out; there must be an opposition that voters trust to govern.

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