LONDON — JOHN MAJOR's handling of Britain's role in the Gulf campaign is winning him the highest popular approval rating of any British prime minister since Winston Churchill was acclaimed a national hero in the darkest days of World War II. Since the ruling Conservative Party chose him to replace Margaret Thatcher last November, Mr. Major has built up a level of public support higher than that achieved by the ``Iron Lady'' at the height of her nearly 11-year premiership.
His popularity is running so high, Conservative Party officials say, that he may come under pressure to call a general election soon after the war is over.
A Mori Poll published Jan. 27 showed that 61 percent of those questioned are satisfied with the way he is doing his job. The best Mrs. Thatcher ever achieved was 59 percent - and that was amid national euphoria when Britain recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentina in June 1982.
Opposition Labour Party backs war policy
Major is still well behind the 88 percent approval rate notched up by Churchill when he succeeded Neville Chamberlain, a champion of the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. But a senior Conservative member of Parliament (MP) who voted for the new prime minister in the November leadership contest said he was not surprised that he had forged ahead in opinion poll ratings.
``John Major is right on the nation's wavelength,'' the MP said.
A political strategist at Conservative Party headquarters, where the electoral implications of the prime minister's popularity are being weighed, agreed: ``His calm, low-key style and his articulate statements on what the war is supposed to achieve add up to a model of public communication at a time of crisis.''
Perhaps the most impressive accolade Major has won so far has been the readiness of Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party opposition leader, to back the government's policies since the fighting began.
Major at first sight seems an unlikely wartime leader. In place of Thatcher's preference for sometimes emotional statements, the new prime minister prefers to make crisp, succinct comments.
In the House of Commons last week, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Major said: ``It is perfectly clear that this man is amoral. He takes hostages. He attacks population centers. He threatens prisoners. He is a man without pity and, whatever his fate may be, I for one will not weep for him.''
Leader's popularity prompts calls for early election
Major is perhaps fortunate in the fact that British forces in the Gulf have had an important part to play in the early stages of the fighting. Tornado bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were used in low-flying attacks on Iraqi airfields. The planes carried special bombs designed to produce deep craters in airstrips, and their achievements attracted a large amount of publicity.
But the exploits of the RAF pilots also produced a difficult problem for Major. In the first week six Tornados were lost in action, and questions were asked in Parliament about the reasons for what appeared to be an over-high proportion of losses.
The prime minister, supported by his defense secretary, Tom King, explained that the airfield attacks were dangerous, and that there had been ``some bad luck'' suffered by the RAF. But there was no parliamentary criticism of the losses.
The Mori Poll that gave Major such a high personal rating also showed that 46 percent of those questioned favor the ruling party compared with 41 percent for Labour - an almost exact reversal of figures in a Mori Poll a month earlier.
Interpreting the latest figures, Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, last week told his staff that a general election as early as this coming June could no longer be ruled out.