Major's bold stroke or political suicide?


LONDON -- For a pollster analyzing an electorate composed of savvy politicians who have been called such names as "duplicitous liars," Bob Worcester is pretty sure of himself.

Here is his call about today's battle for the Conservative Party leadership between Prime Minister John Major and former Welsh Secretary John Redwood:

"Major is a goner."

Not so fast, says Oliver Heald, a supporter of the prime minister.

"John Major is going to win on the first ballot," Mr. Heald says. "But I can't tell you the vote numbers we have. It's a secret."

Who's right? They might both be.

Step inside the unpredictable campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and with it the prime minister's post.

In this race, the public is shut out and the electorate consists of 329 Conservative members of Parliament who have been wheeling and dealing in the paneled and carpeted corridors and tearooms of government.

Mr. Major, 52, triggered the election when he resigned as party leader June 22 and taunted his right-wing critics, telling them to "put up or shut up" over his leadership.

Although no political observers are predicting an outright victory by Mr. Redwood, 44, they say his challenge could seriously wound Mr. Major.

Under the Conservatives' voting rules, Mr. Major must get at least 165 votes and lead his rival by at least 15 percent. Otherwise, there will be a second ballot July 11.

But in this race, a close call would not be good enough for the prime minister. If Mr. Major fails to collect at least 200 votes, he will unable to demand support from all Conservatives and unable to retain power until 1997, when the next national elections are scheduled, political insiders say.

At that point, he might choose to resign. The leadership contest would then turn into a free-for-all, with Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine and Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, another right-winger, expected to enter the race.

"Here is a guy [Major] who has just committed suicide for himself and likely for his party. It's the shortest suicide note in history," says Mr. Worcester, director of the Market and Opinion Research International poll.

"The Conservatives are so confused they are running around stabbing each other in the front," he says. "Whatever happens, they're on the short road to disaster.

"Nobody knows what Major needs," Mr. Worcester says. "Below 80 votes against him, and he's safe. Eighty to 100, and he's ailing. One hundred to 120, and he's pretty ill. Over 120, and he's [politically] dead."

Still, accurate predictions are difficult to make in this race, with most newspapers putting Mr. Major's support in the ailing gray area.

"The worst outcome, from the point of view of the Conservatives, would be for John Major to win narrowly," says Philip Norton, a University of Hull government professor. "There would be lingering vulnerability in his position."

The Conservatives have been in power for 16 years, and if their slender parliamentary majority doesn't erode, they do not have to call for an election until mid-1997. In recent polls, they have been more than 20 points behind the Labor Party, andmany feel that Mr. Major will be an election liability if he stays.

The issue that has divided the Tories is Britain's relationship with the 15-state European Union. Those labeled as "Euroskeptics" support Mr. Redwood, who has come out against a single European currency. Mr. Major has sought to strengthen Britain's ties with the EU.

The campaign has taken place under the glare of television lights and in the pages of newspapers. One week, Mr. Major is down, losing his support in most of the Conservative newspapers. The next week, he is up, dazzling during question time in Parliament.

And few commentators know what to make of Mr. Redwood, who was long ago tagged with the nickname "Vulcan," for a resemblance to the "Star Trek" character Mr. Spock and his low-key personality. Before he quit Mr. Major's Cabinet to run against him, hardly anyone in the general public had even heard of him. Now, he's a political superstar, giving daily interviews and news conferences.

The real arm-twisting and hard bargaining has occurred in the inner sanctum of Parliament. And, ultimately, each member will cast a secret ballot.

"These voters are people with a deep understanding of politics, both the high and low road," says Mr. Heald. "They understand the personalities, the policies and the street fighter role of politicians."

John Wilkinson, one of the Conservatives' chief "Euroskeptics," supports Mr. Redwood but is aghast that the party is engaged in a battle over its leader. In 1990, in similar circumstances, Margaret Thatcher was forced out and replaced by Mr. Major.

"Is this any way to run the country? No. It's a walking and talking disaster," Mr. Wilkinson says.

"This is horrendous. I can't comprehend, after the trauma of the removal of Margaret Thatcher, anyone plunging us into this hideous situation."

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