Major under siege, but won't surrender British prime minister faces fractious party and bare majority

January 10, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- This is how the first question time of 1996 began in the House of Commons yesterday.

A Labor politician named Paul Flynn got up, stared across the aisle at Prime Minister John Major, challenged the "legitimacy" of the ruling Conservative government and then, over the roar of the Commons, shouted: "Isn't it degrading of you to deny the country an election -- to deny the country the choice between an exhausted Tory government and an invigorated Labor Party?"

And Mr. Major thought he had problems last year?

Running on empty

Down in the polls, his parliamentary majority eroding, and his party running on empty after nearly 17 years in power, Mr. Major is facing yet another year in which he'll have to fight hard to remain in office.

But Mr. Major won't surrender. And, despite repeated Labor pleas, he vows not to call for an election before he has to, which isn't until the spring of 1997.

Answering critics like Mr. Flynn, Mr. Major said: "I think the legitimacy [of the government] might have something to do with the largest popular vote ever recorded at the last election -- and a majority in the House."

But talking about a last election in Britain is like remembering a high school romance. These are clearly dangerous times for the Conservatives, who won power back when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Basically, the public has grown weary of a party that has seen its share of political sleaze %J scandals. Besides, the Conservatives are blamed for the perceived deterioration of the National Health Service, and for selling off one national industry after another.

Mr. Major, who replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1990 and won the 1992 election, has spent the last few years under political siege. His majority in the 651-member Parliament was reduced to three last month when Emma Nicholson bolted the party for the Liberal Democrats. Last October, another Tory, Alan Howarth, fled for Labor.

The Conservative margin is expected to be reduced to one after two coming elections are held to fill vacated seats.

Still, it is unlikely that Mr. Major would lose a vote of confidence in the Commons and be forced into an election. The reason? He can count on support from nine members of the Ulster Unionists, the majority Protestant party in Northern Ireland. Of course, keeping the Ulster Unionists in line could have a dramatic impact on the pace of peace talks in Northern Ireland.

For now, though, Mr. Major is having a tough time presiding over his fractious party, which is split over Britain's links to Europe. Last July, Mr. Major held a "put up or shut up" election for the party leadership to silence a right wing skeptical of tighter ties to the Continent. Even though he won the battle, the struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party continues.

Opposition politicians, accustomed to their own philosophical battles, are relishing the brawl. They lined up yesterday in the Commons to heap scorn on the Conservatives.

"You cannot stop your colleagues squabbling, however many warnings you give them on television," Liberal Democrat Alan Beith told Mr. Major. "Might you now admit the party is over for you?"

Labor's leader, Tony Blair, chided Mr. Major: "Isn't it precisely because the whole business of your government is now about pleasing this faction or that of the Conservative Party that the country has given up on the Conservatives as a serious party of government?"

Mr. Blair, just back from a well-reviewed tour of Asia, holds a commanding 30-point lead over Mr. Major in most political polls. Mr. Major is struggling to get the voters to focus on positive economic trends.

Accentuating the positive

Mr. Major said Britain's economic success "is very widely recognized in almost every country of the world -- perhaps with the solitary exception of this one."

The Labor members weren't buying the line. Ronnie Campbell, who was working in a coal mine when now-Baroness Thatcher's first Conservative government was elected in May 1979, was in the Commons yesterday shouting for Mr. Major to call for an election "now that the Prime Minister's majority is getting smaller and smaller and smaller."

"People have had enough of this government," Mr. Campbell said later.

Michael Carttiss, a Conservative politician, disagreed.

"There's no reason why John Major can't see through his term," he said. "We weren't elected for just 3 1/2 years."

But what could cause the Conservatives to call for an early election?

Mr. Carttiss paused for a moment and said: "If four or five [Conservative members of Parliament] die, we might be in a different situation."

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