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Major's Pre-emptive Strike


Prime Minister John Major, every British caricaturist's model of a wimp in politics, knocked his party's back-stabbers on their behinds by resigning as party leader. His stock immediately soared. He will win re-election as leader by Conservative Members of Parliament, or lose the prime ministry.

There are two basic objections to Mr. Major by some Tories. The first is that the unpopular governing party seems destined to lose the election that must be held by summer 1997 to a revived Labor Party. If Members of Parliament think he will drag them further down than an unblemished new leader, they will act undeterred by loyalty or sentiment. That is how Mr. Major came to power in 1990 as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's chosen successor, after party rebels did her in.

The second is a policy revolt by "Euro-skeptics" trying to scuttle Mr. Major's adherence to the Treaty of Maastricht and closer European Union. They have been savage in predicting his imminent ouster, undermining his authority, diminishing the party majority to the House of Commons.

Mr. Major confronted his enemies before they could organize and maneuvered his most trenchant critics (notably Mrs. Thatcher) into supporting him, by forcing the 327 Tory M.P.s to vote for or against him three months before the allotted date for the contest. Should a party figure outside government deprive Mr. Major of a majority on the first ballot, one or more cabinet members would enter the next and likely win, as he did in 1990.

The first reactions suggested that Mr. Major caught his enemies off-guard. A first-ballot win July 4 would strengthen him against a challenge in November. Simultaneously, the pro-Europe loyalist Douglas Hurd announced his retirement as foreign secretary, allowing Mr. Major to move away from Europe and depriving the lightning of its target.

The likelihood is that Mr. Major strengthened his grip without necessarily diminishing the probabilities Labor will win the next election and Tories may seek another leader before then. He was immediately seen as a more resourceful political fighter than before, and he is stronger for that.

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