LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major is in danger of becoming the Stan Laurel of screwball politics, dodging perpetual crises with an air of deadpan earnestness.
The question many now ask is whether he can escape unscathed until the last reel. He is seen as a nice guy who may finish last because he's often in over his head. His government, besieged by sex and financial scandals and stuck with a slogan about going back to moral basics, is being talked about in terms of baggy-pants farce.
Britons told Gallup pollsters that in a parliamentary pantomime they would cast Mr. Major as a pet such as Mother Goose or Dick Whittington's cat, or a knock-about comic like Idle Jack or Simple Simon.
The prime minister began this week answering questions at a special inquiry he had set up himself to probe the sale of arms to Iraq on the eve of the gulf war. He became the first sitting prime minister in history to face such a grilling. Basking in Mr. Major's discomfort, John Smith, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Mr. Major must appear either a fool or a knave at the inquiry into whether the government changed its policy on arms exports without telling Parliament.
The prime minister denied he had been involved in drawing up or changing the guidelines on selling arms to Iraq even though he was foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister during the year before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
He said he saw only one document on the arms sales after he became foreign secretary in 1989.
He was not informed that guidelines had been relaxed by junior ministers at the end of the Iraq-Iran War in 1988, he said.
"It is inconceivable that he had no idea what was going on," said Robin Cook, the Labor Party's trade and industry spokesman. "And if in fact he had no idea what was going on, what on earth is he doing as prime minister?"
On BBC's Breakfast with [David] Frost, Mr. Smith, the Labor Party leader, blamed the Conservatives for widespread British cynicism about politicians.
Last week, a poll for the Guardian, a liberal newspaper, showed 50 percent of those polled would vote for Mr. Smith's party and 26 percent for Mr. Major's, a record low.
In a comparison in the latest Gallup poll on who people think
would make the best prime minister, Mr. Major received 18 percent, Mr. Smith 34 percent, and Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown 17 percent.
His Downing Street office spent the weekend defending Mr. Major against the charge he had said he would "crucify" three right-wing members of his Cabinet.
Mr. Major found himself in a battle with two of biggest and most staunchly Conservative newspapers in Britain, the Sun and the Daily Mail, the two tabloids that reported his alleged outburst, which they said occurred at a dinner Thursday.
Mr. Major's defenders called it all "a malicious fiction." Neither paper backed down. They reported Mr. Major was incensed because the right wing of his party had tried to "hijack" his back-to-basics campaign.
He is left with a Cabinet in which three ministers vow to resign if the arms-to-Iraq probe finds they acted improperly and in which at least three right-wing ministers are in semi-revolt, with their choice, Michael Portillo, chief secretary to the treasury, being touted as a successor to Mr. Major.
The back-to-basics campaign was launched with great hoopla at the Conservative conference in October with strident vows to crack down on juvenile crime and single mothers.
The slogan under with which the Conservatives were going to lead Britain back to traditional family values and themselves to re-election began to crumble when sex and sleaze scandals spread among Conservative politicians.
Two weeks ago, Environmental Minister Tim Yeo quit when it became known he had fathered a child in an extramarital affair.
Mr. Yeo next owned up to being the father of another child who was given over to adoption 26 years ago.
Then the wife of a member of Parliament claimed her husband had left her for a man. The husband conceded he had slept in the same bed with an old friend during a trip to France but said they were only saving money.
Then there was the Earl of Caithness. He resigned as transport minister after his wife killed herself with a shotgun nine days ago, reportedly out of despair over his affair with another woman.
Last weekend a Conservative member of Parliament admitted he was the father of a boy whose mother is a secretary to the Conservatives in the House of Commons.
Newspapers began describing Conservative chaos, and Mr. Major began backpedaling: Back to basics is about law and order, rising education standards and backing Britain, he said.
"There is a moral dimension," his damage control experts said. "It is not a moral crusade."
Conservatives on the right, left and center began sounding like Oliver Hardy when he used to say to Mr. Laurel: "That's another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley."