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April 21, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

STOCKTON-ON-TEES, England -- His Conservative Party is imploding. The polls are alarming. And the photo opportunity of the year is threatening to fall apart because somebody forgot to move the campaign bus.

But British Prime Minister John Major doesn't lose his cool -- or his smile. Walking down the road with his political benefactor, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he follows the orders of cameramen shrieking: "Stop! Get that bus out of the way!" Major turns around. The bus leaves.

And Britain's perhaps most underestimated politician plows ahead, refusing to buckle despite bad news -- and bad campaign days.

Major and his Conservative Party appear headed for a fall in the May 1 general election. For 18 years the Tories have run Britain. Now, they may be run out of power, trailing by up to 22 points in the polls against Labor and its 43-year-old leader, Tony Blair.

But the worse things get for the Conservatives, the better the 54-year-old Major looks.

People seem to like him. Shame about the party.

Major is a self-made, self-educated man, the high school dropout who became prime minister as the anointed heir to now-Lady Thatcher. His vision for Britain is quite simple: a classless society where the have-nots become the haves in a nation at ease with itself. In Major's perfect British world, there are bright days, warm beer and lush cricket greens.

Critics call him the "gray man" of British politics, dull and uninspiring. The truth is, all he ever does is win. Until now, perhaps.

In 1990, Major climbed from obscurity to succeed Thatcher as prime minister. Two years later, against all odds, he led the Conservatives to victory in a general election. And in 1995, when he looked like a political goner, he challenged his Conservative rivals in a "put-up-or-shut-up" race for the party leadership. He won.

Yet, this time, he's in big political trouble.

His party is coming apart over the issue of Britain's role in Europe. The country's most influential right-wing newspaper, the Sun of London, is now pulling for Labor. Even the bookies are veering left, quoting odds of 1-to-7 for a Labor triumph.

And yet, here is Major at his best, campaigning daily with Norma, his wife of 26 years, by his side. He strides through one event after another, calm, rational, his meaty hands punching the air as he lays out the accomplishments of his government.

The economy is good, with unemployment down, the stock market up and the rate of inflation low. The welfare state is secure.

"You've got to have the economy right, without which nothing else is possible," Major says. "No point in having compassion in your heart or on your sleeve if the national wallet is empty. We got the economy right."

But is anyone listening?

`Looking for a change'

In the gorgeous Georgian market town of Yarm, a few hundred people assemble in the street while others lean out of windows as Major tells them the Tories deserve another chance. People applaud politely. But in the back, two men shout, "Goodbye, John. Goodbye, Tories."

Another voter, a child-care worker named Shelia Glew, adds: "I find him trustworthy. But people are restless. They're looking for a change."

Then Major is off to Darlington to speak at a recreational vehicle dealership. It looks like a bit of Iowa in Britain, with pop-up tents and camper vans.

"This election can be taken by the scruff of the neck and won by the Conservatives," Major tells 200 supporters who have risen from their camp chairs to listen. "And it must be. And it will be. There is a silent majority."

Unfortunately for Major, it appears the silent majority will be voting Labor this year. The pollsters say the people are tired of the Tories.

In Britain, a prime minister can't run away from his party. After a generation in power, the Conservatives appear dispirited and disunited. They won the ideological battles to transform Britain's socialist, state-owned economy. But under Major, they appear to have run out of new ideas. In the past few years, the Tories also have been burdened by a string of petty corruption and sex scandals.

But Europe has split the Conservatives, exposing the cracks in a party at odds with itself. On one side are the internationalists such as Major, who seek to cut the best deals possible with their partners in the 15-nation European Union. On the other side are the Euro- skeptics, proponents of a "Little England," who say that their country is handing over its identity -- and power -- to Europe.

What Euroskeptics fear most is that Britain will be forced to give up its beloved pound for a European single currency planned for 1999. Under the single-currency plan, all currencies in the European Union would be replaced with one new unit of money, the euro.

The Tory civil war reopened last week when scores of candidates declared their opposition to abolishing the pound. While Major was on the road, politicians few had ever heard of were on television snubbing their leader.

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