Britain's bleak economic scene; But Margaret Thatcher pushes on undaunted

Across Western Europe, and in Britain today, politics is economics.

So, some of the best political news Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is receiving these days is the falling inflation rate here (now 7.3 percent and still dropping) and lower interest rates not only at home but in the United States.

In the same way, the worst political news the prime minister has to face is that mass unemployment is still high in Europe and rising in the US, and that world economic growth and trade remain slack.

This economic picture sets the framework for the winter political season in Britain.

By European standards, any government presiding over 14 percent unemployment (double that among young people in some areas), and flat output, should be deep in trouble. But Mrs. Thatcher still dominates the scene here just as Big Ben towers over the gothic arches of the palace of Westminister.

Her Conservative government leads Labour by a remarkable 12 points in the opinion polls, and her own popular standing is high.

As governments fall or rock in Western Europe, from Scandinavia to West Germany, she speaks as firmly as ever. Mrs. Thatcher looks and sounds confident that her stern monetarist course is wringing inflation out of the economy and that Britain is well positioned to take advantage of world economic recovery when it finally comes.

Unlike European governments, she has no coalition parties to placate. She refuses to ''reflate'' - to pump more government money into creating jobs. She uses the language of the Falklands campaign, which has boosted her reputation as a leader, to assert that any economic U-turn now would be a ''betrayal.''

(In a society where television image plays a larger and larger political role , observers remark on her more youthful and fresher appearance these days. Dental work and a new hairstyle have subtly altered her facial appearance.)

It became clear during the season of annual party conferences just ended that one main hope of the Labour Party and of the Liberal-Social Democratic alliance is that somehow, the prime minister will make a false step.

The main hope of the Labour Party is that floating and protest supporters, especially in the volatile, skilled blue-collar region of the West Midlands, will rise up and rebel against joblessness now standing at 3.4 million. The rate is likely to stay at about that level at least until the next election. To try to reassure the voters that its hard-left wing is not tearing it apart, the Labour leadership combined its parliamentary and right-wing trade union wings in Blackpool. They pushed left-wingers off the national Executive Committee and moved ahead with expelling militant Trotskyites.

The Social Democrats and the Liberals tried to give the appearance that mometum - slowing considerably since the heady days of an almost 50 percent share of the polls last Christmas - is about to return.

Opposition parties noted that, when the latest Gallup poll asked voters who they blamed most for high unemployment, 27 percent said ''the government.''

Yet almost as many (24 percent) blamed world recession, and 19 percent blamed the trade unions.

When asked if they thought government policies would improve the situation in the long run, almost 40 percent answered ''yes.''

It seems apparent that most voters are simply not judging the government by the standard of unemployment alone. If they begin to do so, the Tories will be in trouble.

The Labour conference in Blackpool tried to spotlight the issue. So did the Liberals and the Social Democrats, who admit that they have not yet appealed to enough Labour voters to launch the kind of broad campaign they need for the next election.

In former Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins, the Social Democrats have a man with the capacity to serve as prime minister. Yet at this point, many believe the alliance can hope for only between 50 and 100 seats at best, and a ''balance of power'' role.

Meanwhile, much attention focuses on a new plan to redraw constituency boundaries. It will heavily favor the Tories, and could mean Labour will be to win 100 more seats to return to power. Labour plans to challenge it at every step.

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