Election fever heats up Britain as Labor slips Major's popularity boosts Conservatives


LONDON -- Britain's political class is alive with anticipation that the Conservative government is preparing to risk its control over the country in a November general election.

A Gallup poll last Friday put the Tory government of John Major 4.5 percentage points ahead of the Labor party, 39.5 percent to 35 percent. In August it was virtually the other way round, with 41 percent of the electorate leaning toward Labor and only 36 percent toward the Conservatives.

Britain's third major party, the Liberal Democrats, has also been gaining through the summer. It claimed 19.5 percent in last week's poll, up 3 points from August.

The reason for the spurt in popularity for the Conservatives is no secret. It is John Major, the self-effacing prime minister with a schoolmasterish way of speaking. Everything he has done in the past two months, especially his energetic activities on the international stage, has enhanced his party's esteem.

In July he was host at one of the more memorable G-7 summit gatherings of the world's richest nations, which was attended by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

In August he met with President Bush on events in the Soviet Union. He got his picture in the papers here showing Mr. Bush how to swing a cricket bat.

He was the first Western head of government to be in Moscow in the wake of the collapse of the Communist regime and to greet Mr. Gorbachev after his brief captivity.

Then he flew to China to warn publicly the hard-line leaders in Beijing to make room for democracy or what that happened to the Soviet Communists might happen to them.

Also critical to the Conservatives' improving fortunes was the government's decision last week to cut interest rates by a half a percentage point. A spokesman at the Treasury Department estimated that the cut would reduce mortgage payments by an average of $89 a month.

The government insisted the cut was an innocent response to a decline in inflation and not intended to create a favorable electoral climate.

The Labor Party has responded by urging Mr. Major to call an election next month. "Why November? Why not October?" asked Roy Hattersley, the party's deputy leader.

Labor is persuaded that the Conservatives are vulnerable on the economy.

Mr. Major, for his part, has been trying to cool the election fever. Though not ruling out an election this year, he has given every indication he would wait until next year.

If he does decide to go to the polls this year, the announcement will most likely be made at the Conservative Party conference next month.

British election campaigns are short by U.S. standards. From the day of the government's announcement, the parties have only 17 working days to woo the voters.

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