Britain Turning To Untested Leadership

May 1 Vote: Blair, A Clinton Look-alike, Holds Center Ground And Big Poll Lead.

April 27, 1997

TONY BLAIR did very little to achieve his large advantage in the British polls. It is widely assumed that the leader of the Labor Party will emerge as his country's next prime minister after the May 1 balloting. Events and the mammoth labors of others created an ideal situation for the opposition party. Mr. Blair deftly seized the moment.

After 18 years of Conservative rule, Britons are demanding change. But for much of that time, the other major party, Labor, kept itself unelectable through its far-left ideology and imperviousness to changes in the world. In 1983, led by its "looney left," Labor won just 27.6 percent of the vote. Moderates were deserting the party and forming a new one.

The struggle to make Labor moderate was titanic. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, bent on destroying the welfare state, made share-owning capitalists out of former Labor voters. The hero who drove Labor to the center, Neil Kinnock, fought battle after battle within the party while losing two elections.

The next Labor leader, John Smith, an intellectual Scot, continued the job and won the respect of the nation. He had Labor ready to win the next election when he died of a heart attack in May 1994. His brash lieutenant, Mr. Blair, locked up the leadership before any rival could mobilize. Then he purged the final musty old Socialist rhetoric from party scripture.

Mr. Blair, 43, bears an uncanny resemblance to Bill Clinton. He is married to another lawyer widely thought to be smarter, and is an articulate champion of values associated with the other party. Mr. Blair upholds most of the positions of Conservative Prime Minister John Major, including some the latter only recently deserted. His detractors don't know what Mr. Blair stands for or would do in power.

Mr. Blair entered Parliament in 1983, four years after the last Labor government. A Labor cabinet would be remarkably inexperienced at governing. It is a new and untested government that the British, barring a miracle or calamitous scandal, are determined to put in power. They are finally throwing the rascals out, now that the alternative does not look so alarming.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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