Major on verge of taking up gauntlet British leader appears ready to accept rival's challenge to debate

March 17, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The way British Prime Minister John Major apparently sees it, television and time are on his side in his battle to wipe away a wide poll deficit and win re-election against the Labor Party and its leader, Tony Blair.

Major appears willing to accept Blair's challenge to engage in a TV debate during the general election campaign that will culminate with a polling day, expected to be held May 1. While such debates are common in the United States, they are extraordinary in Britain, where leaders of the major parties briefly square off twice a week during Prime Minister's Question Time.

"It's right that there should be a series of debates, at least two," Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday. "We would want them to be prime ministerial debates and we would want them to include rigorous cross examination."

The British media are also reporting that Major could call for the general election as early as today. But a statement from Major dismissed the reports as "pure speculation," saying a decision is weeks away, or longer. As prime minister, Major reserves the right to head to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament, setting the stage for a general election.

Down by as much as 25 points in polls, the Conservatives are in big trouble. Although they have been in power for 18 years and won four straight elections, virtually no one outside their party leadership gives them a chance to win five.

So, Major may be going for broke by breaking with precedent.

A debate gives him a chance to dent Blair's image. A long campaign is seen as his only chance to sway the hearts and minds of British voters, who usually see only three weeks of campaigning before casting their ballots to elect 659 members of Parliament.

The move toward a debate shows just how desperate things are for the Conservatives, who can't seem to gain the public's favor despite low unemployment and a booming stock market. During the 1992 campaign, Major rejected a debate challenge, saying: "Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick. Every politician that expects to win says, 'no.' "

Both major parties are apparently trying to exclude the Liberal Democrats' leader, Paddy Ashdown, from such a debate.

Final debate terms have yet to be set.

A poll for the Sunday Times of London showed Labor leading the Conservatives by 52 percent to 27 percent. The Liberal Democrats had 13 percent.

The newspaper also claimed only 33 of 60 Conservative members of Parliament polled believed their party would win the election.

But Britain's political establishment has consistently underestimated Major's survival skills ever since he succeeded Margaret Thatcher. He came from far back in the polls to stage an upset general election victory in 1992.

In 1995, Major again appeared to be a political goner when inner-party squabbling threatened to bring his government down. Instead of bowing to the malcontents, he challenged them to "put up or shut up," calling for a leadership election that he easily won.

But this time, Major may finally meet his match.

Blair is glib, politically skilled, and ruthless in his quest to force Labor to shed its old socialist ideals. In the last two years, he has refashioned the party's collection of union bosses and old political hands into his telegenic image.

Blair, though, remains untested in a national campaign. Few voters can really pin-point what he stands for, other than change.

But if the polls are accurate, the British public is set on ousting the Conservatives.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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