In Britain, it's not the economy May 1 election: Successful Conservatives should be favorites, are not.

March 23, 1997

BY CONVENTIONAL political thinking, Prime Minister John Major's Conservative government should be odds-on favorite to win the election in Britain he has just called for May 1.

Mr. Major is one of the most successful politicians in an English-speaking country in modern times. Britain's economy is the best it has been in memory and, for once, stronger than most of Europe's. Mr. Major is an inspiring success story, having risen from the depths to the pinnacle through pluck and dedication.

But Mr. Major is written off as a hapless paragon of bland. Hardly anybody gives his party a chance of winning a fifth straight election. The reformed Labor Party under the upstart Tony Blair, which has not won since 1974, is more than 20 percent ahead in the polls.

The British may have had enough of Tories after 18 years. They are sick of the sexual scandals that have bedeviled the cabinet. They are scandalized by the political infighting there. They choose to blame the government for "mad cow" disease. Basically, they think it's time to throw the Tories out and give the other lot a chance. Mr. Major has called for a long campaign by British standards -- 45 days -- to change their minds.

Mr. Major grew up in London slums, dropped out of school at 16, found work, joined the Conservatives and plummeted upward. He got into the House of Commons with the Thatcher government in 1979 and won favor. When Mrs. Thatcher's brittle zeal doomed the party's chances, notoriously unsentimental Conservatives dumped her in 1990 for Mr. Major.

He unexpectedly led the party to a fourth victory two years later. Despite back-stabbing in the cabinet, he has presided over a strong pound and economic growth, with unemployment half that of some European countries.

Yet this self-invented man gets no credit. He is the butt of wimp jokes, proving only that his disguise is working. The campaign is likely to narrow the gap, but if Mr. Major (the son of a failed magician) can pull this one out, it would be an election turnaround to compare with Harry Truman's in 1948.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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