LONDON — JOHN MAJOR, the ``ordinary man'' who was catapulted into leadership last November, has, by wide consent, enhanced his reputation following the Gulf war. After only 100 days in 10 Downing Street, some of his senior advisers are urging him to bid for five more years in office by calling a May or June general election. Other advisers, however, counsel caution, and warn that an error of election timing could make the Major premiership one of the shortest this century.
Whatever view members of Mr. Major's inner circle take, they are agreed that he must make up his mind soon.
A Mori public opinion poll published Sunday showed the man who succeeded Margaret Thatcher well ahead of Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party opposition. Major scored 63 percent to Mr. Kinnock's 45 percent.
Impressed by these figures, Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, last week told local parties in the country's 650 parliamentary seats to get ready for an early contest. Hearing that news, Kinnock put Labour's nationwide general-election team on alert, too.
Much of the pressure on Major to name an early election date, rather than wait until mid-1992, the latest time possible under the Constitution, comes from Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) eager to ride back into their seats on the prime minister's coattails.
Nearly 30 percent of Conservative MPs polled last week said they would like Major to call an election in May or June. A similar proportion would prefer to delay the poll, but not beyond the fall. The remainder would be happier with an election delayed until next year. Among the latter group, the state of the economy is seen as the chief argument against an early vote.
One of Major's ministerial colleagues said much would depend on the prime minister's confidence in his own abilities and reputation. ``In terms of public approval he is well ahead of Mrs. Thatcher in her last year in office, and if he decided to project himself correctly, he would surely lead us to victory,'' he said.
Image projection appears to be the key to Major's current popularity. In a TV interview last weekend he did not dissent when a questioner suggested that he was ``an ordinary chap.''
``Don't forget, there are many, many ordinary chaps out in the Gulf, fighting against Iraq,'' Major said.
In a surprise move on Tuesday, Major ended a one-day trip to Moscow by visiting British troops in Kuwait. This made him the first allied leader to go to the Gulf since the end of the war with Iraq, and was seen by analysts here as a shrewd move, if indeed he is planning plans an early general election.
Labour Party officials say they are unimpressed by the prime minister. Though Major may be well ahead of Kinnock in popularity, his party, with 44 percent public approval, is only three points ahead of Labour. A month ago it was five points ahead.
``The election, whenever it is held, will be decided not on personalities but on policies. The current recession is the direct result of Conservative policies, and nothing John Major can do can hide that,'' says John Smith, Labour's ``shadow'' finance spokesman.