British Tories in Trouble on Campaign Trail

Polls show Labour Party could sweep cities and win a clear parliamentary majority

BRITISH Conservatives are pinning their hopes on Prime Minister John Major being able to pump new vigor into his party's flagging general campaign before the April 9 election.

Over the weekend four out of five public opinion polls showed the opposition Labour Party with a narrow lead, and the Conservatives having difficulty getting their message across to voters.

A Harris poll Saturday suggested that Labour could defeat scores of Conservative candidates in London and other large cities, producing a clearcut parliamentary majority for the party that has not held power for 13 years.

Conservative Party stalwarts openly blamed Mr. Major for leading a lackluster bid for another five years in office.

Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister whom Major displaced in December 1990, joined a chorus of criticism of Conservative election tactics. "The campaign has lacked oomph, whiz, and steam," she said Saturday.

The Liberal Democrat center party meanwhile appeared to be gaining, moving up from around 16 percent to as high as 20 percent in one poll.

A Conservative Party strategist admitted: "Our campaign hasn't caught alight yet. The coming week looks like being make-or-break for us."

Sir Marcus Fox, vice-chairman of the Conservatives' backbench committee in the House of Commons, and other Conservative Party leaders blame party chairman Chris Patten for letting Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader, dictate the election agenda. "We need a more forceful style and more aggression from Mr. Major," Sir Marcus said.

The apparently growing disarray in Conservative ranks has its roots in frustration that the ruling party has been unable to overtake Labour in most of the polls.

In their attempts to achieve a breakthrough, the Conservatives last week moved from issue to issue, claiming that Labour, if elected, would hit voters' pocket books, undo the Conservative government's reform of the National Health Service, damage the education system, and give more power to trade unions.

No issue caught fire, however. Much of the week was devoted to bitter argument about a Labour advertisement which accused the Conservatives of under-funding public health and causing children to wait long periods for medical treatment.

The film was loosely based on the case of a real child whose name was later released to newspapers. Major and other Conservatives accused Labour of exploiting the child. Mr. Kinnock claimed that the Conservatives had deliberately leaked her name.

After three days of dispute, neither side appeared to have gained any advantage. But the Liberal Democrats, who had remained aloof from the argument, rose three or four points in the polls. The Conservatives and Labour, however, remained in a "near stalemate" that promises "a result in which neither party has a clear majority," says David Sanders, an expert in government at Essex University.

On Saturday the Conservative campaign got a brief boost at Luton, near London, when Major encountered an angry crowd of socialist extremists. The prime minister turned on the mob, seized a megaphone, and shouted that they represented "the unacceptable face of socialism."

The incident was heavily reported on television, and Conservative supporters said they hoped the prime minister would find other opportunities to demonstrate that he is capable of showing emotion and conviction.

Labour spokesmen denied that the Luton demonstrators were members of the Labour Party.

A Harris poll last week indicated Labour could gain 8.5 percent against the Conservatives in London - enough to win all 21 marginal seats in the capital.

If such a swing were repeated across the country, Labour would achieve an overall majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives now have a Commons majority of around 100 seats.

Evidence over the weekend indicated that the health-care issue will help Labour on voting day.

A Harris opinion poll yesterday showed that 42 percent of voters think Labour has the best health policies, compared with 28 percent for the Conservatives. The poll also showed that 56 percent of voters believe the Conservatives intend to privatize the currently state-funded health service.

As the Conservatives faced 10 more days of electioneering, Major was under pressure to propel Michael Heseltine to center stage in the campaign. It was Mr. Heseltine who challenged Major's for the party leadership 16 months ago.

He is an accomplished orator whose supporters say privately he still has his sights set on becoming Conservative leader should his party suffer an election defeat.

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