LONDON -- As Prime Minister John Major was in Washington last week trying to persuade television interviewers that Britain's decline has been greatly exaggerated by the press, back here people appeared to be moving away from his Conservative Party -- from the bottom, from the middle and, most unsettling of all from the party's point of view, from the top.
The Duke of Westminster, said to be richer than Queen Elizabeth II, resigned from the Conservative Party, it was learned. He also stopped making contributions to the party. Earl Cadogan, another super-rich Conservative, also has closed his purse to the party.
A poll by Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) reported a slide in support for the Conservative government among working-class people -- many of whom were Labor supporters brought into the Conservative fold by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Worse were the responses to the pollsters from voters between the ages of 55 and 64. They have traditionally constituted a rock-solid, pro-Conservative constituency. But 56 percent of them told MORI that if there an election were held tomorrow they would vote for Labor.
Said Robert Worcester, the MORI chairman: "I have never seen the Conservative Party in as much trouble with its natural constituencies."
The poll, published Friday in The Times, queried 1,633 people throughout Britain between Feb. 18 and Feb. 22. It revealed, among other things, that the Labor Party held a 12 percent lead over the Conservatives in terms of how people would vote if an election were imminent.
It showed that Mr. Major's personal popularity, or rating, was declining among the population generally: Some 64 percent of those queried responded negatively to him.
Eighty percent said they were dissatisfied with the way the Conservatives were running the country.
The negative numbers are produced by the gloom over the declining economy, especially over unemployment (more than 3 million jobless nationally; 7,000 jobs chopped last week alone by two major industries), and by the perception that crime is out of control.
A growing number of people just don't believe Mr. Major and his ministers when they say they see an upturn on the horizon. Nearly half expect the economy to deteriorate.
The estrangement from the party of the duke and the earl also relates to economic matters. Their personal fortunes, they feel, are being put at risk by a piece of government-sponsored legislation, the Household and Urban Development Bill.
This would allow people who hold long-term leases on their homes to purchase them at market value and would require the owners to sell them. The bill seems to be a natural continuation of the Conservatives' drive under Mrs. Thatcher to encourage home ownership.
The Duke of Westminster is said to be the richest man in Britain. He owns, among other vast estates throughout the country, about 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia, as well as the houses that sit on them. These two neighborhoods represent a significant fraction of his income from rents.
For the duke, the party to which his family has been allied for so many years "has ideologically gone off the rails." In truth, the sacredness of property rights has always been central to the Conservative Party's ethos, and a measure such as the Household and Urban Development Bill might seem a somewhat alien piece of legislation -- until one remembers how many thousands of well-off, influential and politically powerful Conservatives hold leases on the duke's properties.