ONE of the winners in the Gulf war appeared to be British Prime Minister John Major. No less staunchly than his fallen predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Major supported the United States in the Gulf, and British forces performed with skill and bravery. Major's public-approval ratings exceeded Mrs. Thatcher's highest marks, even after the Falklands war. Surely he would waltz to victory whenever he chose to call a general election, sometime before next summer. That's how it looked to outsiders, anyway. In fact, the omens for the next British election weren't to be found in Iraq, but in a place called Ribble Valley. There, in a by-election last month, the Conservative Party candidate lost what had been one of the Tories' most secure parliamentary seats. Far from looking invulnerable, Major suddenly looked as though his could be just a caretaker government.
Why did Ribble Valley reject the Tory candidate? He was poleaxed by the poll tax. That's a per-capita tax to finance local government, introduced by Thatcher to replace property taxes. The purposes of the new tax were to spread local government expenses among all the users of government services, not just property owners, and to make high-spending local governments more accountable to voters. But the wildly unpopular tax was viewed as unfair, since all taxpayers in a jurisdiction paid the same amount, r egardless of means.
Bowing to the inevitable, the Major government has announced that it will abandon the poll tax after next year. To further appease voters, the government's newly announced budget for 1991-92 includes substantial poll-tax relief. The measures may have saved Major's bacon. He reportedly is giving thought to a June election, going to the voters while his political stars remain high.
Major's U-turn on the poll tax, combined with his conciliatory attitude toward European unity, marks what one British official called "the end of Thatcherism." In a sense that's an overstatement, as Major shares many of Thatcher's social and economic instincts. It's clear, however, that the Thatcher era is gone for good, and that the premiership is now John Major's to keep or lose on his own platform.