Major's difficulties loom larger British election: Date so close allows little reason for government to fall.

December 21, 1996

BRITISH voters and politicians understand that an election will be held on a Thursday in April or May 1. Every speech, policy and political gesture is made with that in mind. All polls suggest that the centrified and gentrified Labor Party under young Tony Blair, the British Clinton, will come to power.

The official campaign, in the British system, will last about a month. The unofficial campaign is well under way. So there is little sense in bringing Prime Minister John Major's limping Conservative government down now. That would upset the electoral timing of everyone, including whoever did it. This reality represents a security of sorts for Mr. Major. He is free to do the right thing.

His government's new budget on Nov. 26 cut the income tax rate a token penny on the pound of income taxed, too little and too prudent to change election prospects. A special election last month in a normally Labor district ended his government's theoretical one-vote majority over all other parties in the House of Commons. A Conservative member of Parliament had earlier withdrawn automatic support for the government on a district pork-barrel issue, but that was showboating rather than really changing the line-up.

The balance of power now rests with minor parties and independents, some of whom expect their own careers to end in the next election and have no incentive to bring it forward. The PTC Ulster Unionists are always holding their ability to do this over Mr. Major, but they expect the election to return a Labor government that would not need them. The hold of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, over Mr. Major is more apparent than real.

Conservatives are forever threatening to fall apart over Europe. The issue is keeping the option for Britain to join a single European Union currency by century's end. The government does, though many Conservatives are violently opposed. The likelihood of the euro materializing in time to create such a crisis is not great.

The ugly truth of British politics is that no one wants a February election. So Mr. Major appears condemned to stagger on. He is running for the history books now. The best way to get in them favorably would be to push accord in Northern Ireland irreversibly forward.

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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