Tory crack-up British politics: Weak ruling party goes to war with itself over principle.

January 29, 1996

PRIME MINISTER John Major's days in power in Britain are limited. He must call an election by spring 1997, which the Labor Party of Tony Blair is poised to win big. But Mr. Major probably cannot keep a necessary majority in the House of Commons that long. Whether he survives would be up to another party once counted among his Conservatives, the nine Ulster Unionist M.P.s.

The 21-vote majority in Parliament with which Mr. Major kept Conservatives in power in the 1992 election is down to five. One Tory M.P. recently defected to Labor, another to the Liberal Democrats and one who had defected earlier returned. Two seats are vacant and are certain to move to the opposition when special elections are held. In a 651-seat House of Commons, more vacancies will occur.

Tory factions are quarreling as in a party already defeated. Mr. Major's predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, made her first political speech in five years and let loose a blast at moderation, and by implication at Mr. Major. Mr. Blair has seized the center for Labor, she suggested. Conservatives must survive by being true to their principles -- meaning hers, more right-wing and nationalistic than Mr. Major's.

Parties out of power customarily have such disputes. Labor kept itself in the wilderness for years being true to its leftist principles. It is doubtful any Conservative wants to supplant Mr. Major before the election, which no one thinks winnable. The post-disaster struggle for the party's soul has begun.

But the slender majority does not include the Unionists from Northern Ireland. They have their own agenda in Northern Ireland negotiations expected to start soon, with a goal of resumed provincial autonomy. They would dump the Conservatives in a minute to prove a point, but it is hardly in their interest. They cannot prevent the Labor landslide, merely determine whether it occurs this year or next. That may rest on whether they can make a deal, not with the fading Conservatives, but with the rising Laborites.

The weakness of Mr. Major's government now is not that its days are finite, but that the death watch mentality has set in. This would psychologically cripple any government. Even if, as is possible, the Unionists should prop his up another year.

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