Tories vote to retain Major as party leader


LONDON -- Reintroducing Prime Minister John Major, the craftiest gambler in town.

Yesterday, the gray man of British politics won the bet of his career with a decisive re-election victory as leader of the ruling Conservative Party and thus of the government.

"The time for division is over," said Mr. Major, who added that he will remain in office until the next election, due by mid-1997.

"We have had this election," said Mr. Major, 52. "I think it has aired matters of important policy interest to all of us. But the election is now over."

Mr. Major received the support of 218 of the 329 Conservative members of Parliament eligible to vote, easily surpassing the minimum 165 votes required to retain the leadership. His rival, John Redwood, won 89 votes.

But there were 22 abstentions, including 12 spoiled ballots and two members not voting.

In many ways, the Tories remain just as divided as before, between those like Mr. Major who favor closer ties with the 15-state European Union, and "Euroskeptics" who demand greater British sovereignty.

Mr. Major promised a quick reshuffle of his Cabinet.

He had stunned his colleagues last month by resigning as party leader and also declaring his intention to seek re-election, forcing the Conservatives to choose between him and the Euroskeptic wing of the party.

Mr. Redwood, the defeated challenger and a former member of the prime minister's Cabinet, said Mr. Major "won fair and square under the rules and I pay tribute to that victory."

Aside from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Major's victory was praised by Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine and Employment Secretary Michael Portillo.

Both men were rumored to be potential rivals for the prime minister's job had the vote gone to a second ballot.

Other Tory political insiders immediately reunited behind the prime minister. Many had carried on a bitter campaign in the corridors and tearooms of Parliament after Mr. Major challenged his right-wing critics to "put up or shut up."

Appearing on a patch of grass in front of the Houses of Parliament, the Conservative politicians waded through hundreds of befuddled tourists to get in front of the television cameras.

"A resounding victory. Resounding," said Peter Bottomley, who videotaped the media show between interviews. "Put it this way, nobody ever lost money betting on John Major."

"This has been a jolly-good blood-letting," said Paul Marland, who supported the challenger. "We're not in to this for fun, like a bunch of U.S. politicians. We aim to win."

The tension throughout the day was intense as one by one the Tory voters trooped through a corridor, passing by a portrait of Sir Walter Scott, to enter Room No. 12 to cast ballots.

Just 35 minutes before the balloting closed, Mr. Major appeared, nearly walked through an exit door, but managed to find his way and cast his vote.

Finally, the votes were counted, and hundreds of Tory members of Parliament crammed into a committee room to wait for the verdict.

Meanwhile, hundreds of political staff members and reporters gathered in a hallway that stretched the length of two football fields.

"Everyone was waiting," Mr. Marland said. "And it was hot. Someone sitting next to me said they lost more weight in two minutes than they had in two years."

When the results were read, the politicians roared.

"For us, this could have been the beginning of the end or the start of a new beginning," said Ian Bruce, a backbencher who supported Mr. Major. "I think it's a new start."

"There is a feeling of reconciliation about," said leading "Euroskeptic" Graham Riddick. "People want to come together and put this behind us. We debated the issues rather than throw mud about."

Gillian Shephard, the Education secretary, said the party's stand on Europe is now clear.

"Everyone has had their say in spades," she said. "It's time to shut up and get on with the program."

Apparently, the Tories will now focus their ire on the opposition Labor Party, which has a comfortable lead in the polls.

But Labor leader Tony Blair quickly took the offensive against the Tories. "There is a very, very substantial part of the Conservative Party against Mr. Major," said Mr. Blair, "and he is in effect not leading one Conservative Party but two."

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