LONDON — BRITAIN'S political parties have begun fighting a long winter war of attrition, following Prime Minister John Major's decision to defer a general election until next spring.The first shots in a campaign likely to last until May were fired by Neil Kinnock, the opposition Labour Party leader who accused Mr. Major of ducking an election next month because Conservative policies were unpopular. Mr. Kinnock said that by delaying the election, the ruling Conservatives were "putting party before the good of the country." But the prime minister was said by his officials to be convinced three important factors will work to the government's advantage in the winter months. Treasury officials had advised him, the officials said, that Britain's languishing economy would begin to pick up late this year or early next. Also, the failure of the Dutch government to obtain support in Brussels Sept. 30 for its plan for a strongly federal European Community (EC) has removed what a leading minister privately conceded at one time appeared to be "a threat to Conservative Party unity." The third factor allegedly in the Conservatives' favor was Kinnock's failure to command widespread pop ularity among British voters. Chris Patten, Conservative Party chairman, welcomed Major's decision to reject an early election. "Voters have begun to realize that Kinnock is a politician who has jettisoned most of his principles in the pursuit of power. The coming months will make that more than ever clear," Mr. Patten said.
Kinnock attacks Major The prime minister's decision came as the Labour Party was meeting for its annual conference at Brighton. It gave Kinnock the opportunity to launch a ferocious attack on Major for supposedly ducking an early election in the face of opinion polls that showed Labour and the Conservatives running neck and neck. Four polls last weekend showed Labour marginally ahead in the public's affections. Major's decision to delay a general election was conveyed to political correspondents in a series of private briefings by Conservative Party officials. Kinnock said on Oct. 1 that he was "very disappointed that the prime minister has not seen fit to make the announcement himself." He added: "I am also saddened if we are not to have an election in November, because the country certainly needs one. It does not need the manipulation that is obviously now going on." Major appears to have timed his decision to take account of two factors. He calculated that it would take the wind out of Kinnock's sails just as he is trying to recover voter support. More important is the outcome of the Sept. 30 meeting of EC ministers in Brussels at which the Dutch plan for a federal Europe was decisively voted down. One of the main arguments for calling a November election was that it would come before a potentially divisive debate within the Conservative Party in the immediate run-up to the EC summit at Maastricht, Netherlands, at which a program of political and economic integration is expected to be decided.
More moderate EC plan The prospect now is that a draft containing less extreme unity proposals will be presented at Maastricht, and that most Conservative members of Parliament and British voters will find it inoffensive. One senior Conservative backbencher said: "The prime minister is now better placed to fashion a deal at Maastricht acceptable to potential rebels in our party. If he can do that it will be a political achievement that we can all point to." A taste of the sharp battle likely to be fought through the winter was given by Jack Cunningham, Labour's campaign coordinator, who stressed the current severe economic recession. After learning Major had decided to delay a general election, he said: "Every day since John Major has led Britain, 3,000 people have lost their jobs and 200 businesses have gone to the wall. Sooner or later, he is going to be called to account by the British people for this abysmal record." Sources within the Confederation of British Industry, the country's top employers' body, said last week the economy, still in deep recession, was showing signs of picking up. Their assessment was based on growing investor confidence and the likelihood that inflation and interest rates would continue to fall in coming months. But John Smith, Labour's chief economic spokesman, said at his party's conference that uncertainty was continuing to damage the economy. "Every day longer the prime minister delays and postpones the general election is another wasted opportunity to start the investment-led economic recovery that Britain so desperately needs," he said. With speculation about a November election out of the way, British bookmakers began trying to forecast when it is most likely to be held. They are suggesting March as Major's most likely choice and say an election cannot conveniently be delayed beyond May, although in theory it could be held as late as mid-July.