As Britain's newspapers have it, Major is down and soon to be out


LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major is in a whole lot of political trouble.

Says who?

Britain's newspapers.

Sunday's News of the World editorialized: "He's finished."

The Sunday Telegraph quoted a "senior ministerial source," that Mr. Major is "probably on the slide."

Things are so bleak for Mr. Major, on the run for his views on Europe, that bookmakers are taking bets on a possible successor.

In a country without political primaries, this is how the campaign to unseat a ruling prime minister begins. Unlike in America, British newspapers are clearly aligned with the political parties. When the normally Conservative newspapers start trumpeting a brawl for the Tory leadership, in power for 16 years, then it's often time to start calling in the moving vans at No. 10 Downing St.

In 1990, it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was ousted by the Conservatives. The beneficiary of the intraparty fight was Mr. Major, who went on to win the 1992 election.

Mr. Major can't be voted out by the Conservative members of Parliament until November. Of course, he could step aside at any time. Regardless, if the Conservatives hold their slender nine-seat majority in Parliament, a new election won't have to be called until mid-1997.

By the traditions of British Conservative politics, the newspaper campaign and party vote is democracy in action. Prior to 1963, the party elders engineered prime ministerial switches. But when Harold Macmillan was replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, some Tory insiders fumed the selection was made by a "magic circle," leading to reform of the system to elect a party standard-bearer.

"The old way the Tories changed their leaders, was that overweight chaps in bowler hats met at private clubs and muttered amongst themselves, and a new leader emerged," said Andrew Marr, political columnist for the Independent.

Patrick J. Dunleavy, professor of government at the London School of Economics added: "There is a fairly strong track record in the Conservative Party of leaders being edged out if they are seen as either failing or contaminated. It happened to Anthony Eden after the Suez crisis. And it happened to Winston Churchill, who didn't want to resign in 1955."

Now, some say, it may be Mr. Major's turn to go.

The problems bedeviling Mr. Major are both personal and political. He is seen by many as unpopular, given the Tories are 29 points behind the opposition Labor Party in recent polls. His government has also been damaged by allegations of political sleaze and a mounting scandal over alleged illegal arms sales to Iran and Iraq.

But Mr. Major's main problem is he rules a party divided over the issue of Europe.

Some right-wing Tories, labeled as "Euroskeptics," oppose Mr. Major's policies on European Union and plans for a single European currency. This faction is led by Michael Portillo, the employment secretary, whose hard-right views have earned him the tag as Britain's budding Newt Gingrich.

But the irony is that if Mr. Major goes, the favorite to succeed him is Michael Heseltine, president of the Board of Trade, who is aligned with the Tories' pro-European wing.

Confused? Don't be. The Conservatives, fearing an electoral wipeout, are out to save their political skins. Mr. Heseltine, popular in the media, able to thrill audiences, said to be fully recovered from a "mild" heart attack two years ago, is seen as someone who could at least stem a political landslide, if not turn aside the challenge of Labor's Tony Blair.

Kenneth Clarke, finance minister, another potential replacement, told the BBC yesterday, "I think John Major deserves to survive. He ought to survive.

"I personally am supporting him, his Cabinet are supporting him and I think the Conservative members of Parliament who, no doubt unintentionally, keep undermining him should concentrate their fire on the Labor Party," Mr. Clarke said.

Apparently, though, the BBC is covering all its bases. Last night, the network broadcast a documentary on a prospective leader waiting in the wings: Mr. Portillo.

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