Major Survives, for Now

July 06, 1995

With tactical daring, Prime Minister John Major solidified his hold on Britain's Conservative Party and government. He has not, however, greatly reduced his party's likelihood of losing the next general election. Nor has he guaranteed against being ousted as its leader and prime minister in a year.

Meanwhile, his strengthened leadership -- with a two-thirds affirmation from Conservative members of the House of Commons -- should enable him to accomplish more of the Tory agenda.

In shuffling his cabinet yesterday, Mr. Major rewarded two leading potential rivals -- the anti-European Michael Portillo and the pro-European Michael Heseltine -- for loyalty during the party challenge by John Redwood.

Mr. Portillo goes from the downgraded employment department to be defense secretary, and Mr. Heseltine from trade to be deputy prime minister and party spokesman. Each becomes more prime ministerial than he was the week before.

Malcolm Rifkind, the new foreign secretary, is less wedded to integration into the European Union than Douglas Hurd, whom he replaces. Like the prime minister, he takes a practical, non-ideological, approach to European integration. Mr. Redwood, the most intellectual as well as right-wing of the old cabinet, is understandably missing from the new one and free to snipe from back benches.

Mr. Major is unpopular because the party has been in power too long, his bland personality has not helped and too many government ministers have been in scandal. But Conservatives who worry about retaining their own seats can't agree on a new leader capable of minimizing their losses.

Mr. Major did not nullify any of those calculations. What he did do was demolish the attempt of Mr. Redwood to convert the general unease into repudiation of Mr. Major's European policy. Conservative M.P.s were not ready to do that, which would not have helped them retain power.

A revived and moderated Labor Party -- sounding more like left-wing Conservatives of old than British Socialists -- is ready to take power when the opportunity arises. Mr. Major understood that moving his cabinet to the right, as critics were demanding, would only make Labor's case easier. He has never been a more forceful leader than in the past few days, but it may have come too late.

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