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British Voters Give Major Mandate

Surprise Conservative victory confounds pollsters, delivers knockout blow to Labour Party leadership, but bodes well for Europeans urging progress on unity

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1992



LONDON

JOHN MAJOR, surprise victor of the April 9 general election in Britain, is beginning a five-year term as prime minister with a heavily refurbished Cabinet, a promise to build a classless society, and a goal to lead Britain out of recession.

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His Labour Party opponents remain stunned by the magnitude of their defeat and have begun a bout of soul-searching about the future of socialism in Britain.

Despite consistent forecasts by opinion polls and political pundits throughout the campaign that the ruling party would fail to achieve a majority in the House of Commons, Major's Conservative Party emerged as the clear winner on Friday, with an overall lead of 21 seats. Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader for the past eight years, is expected to resign.

On April 11 the prime minister appointed a Cabinet in which only two of his senior colleagues remained in their old posts. He sacked prominent carry-overs from Margaret Thatcher's old team, including Kenneth Baker, the former home secretary, and Peter Brooke, the Northern Ireland secretary.

He promoted several younger politicians, including two women who will take on high-profile jobs.

"This is the end of the Thatcher era," said a leading Conservative backbencher. "John is his own man now."

Major was delighted to have "won a mandate in my own right," he added. His priority was to lead Britain out of recession and back to prosperity.

Bitterly disappointed that a hard-fought Labour campaign had ended in failure, Mr. Kinnock indicated to friends over the weekend that he would resign as party leader. He was expected to announce his resignation today.

Labour has already begun a root-and-branch analysis of why it lost the election and how it can rebuild itself at a time when left-wing parties elsewhere in Europe also are losing ground.

John Smith, the party's financial spokesman, is a strong prospect to succeed Kinnock as party leader, Labour sources said.

In two unusual moves, Major switched David Mellor, a senior Treasury minister, to a newly created post of national heritage minister, and put William Waldegrave, health secretary in the last government, in charge of the Citizens' Charter. This is a "bill of rights" for British consumers, which Major calls one of his most important policy initiatives.

Mr. Mellor will have responsibility for the arts, broadcasting, and sports. It is the first time a minister with Cabinet rank has been asked to supervise government policy in such matters. Two secretaries retained

The prime minister retained Norman Lamont, as his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite criticisms of his last budget, and reappointed Douglas Hurd, an enthusiast for European unity, as foreign secretary.

Michael Heseltine, whom Major defeated to lead the Conservative Party after Mrs. Thatcher resigned in December 1990, was promoted to be trade and industry secretary, with orders to spearhead an export drive.

Gillian Shephard and Virginia Bottomley go to the employment and health ministries. They are the first women Major has appointed to Cabinet posts.

Their jobs will expose them to a lot of criticism. Unemployment is heading toward 3 million, and the prime minister has said he is determined to refashion the National Health Service, despite Labour Party protests.

By achieving an absolute House of Commons majority, the Conservatives are the first party in 150 years to win four general elections in a row. They won in the face of an economic recession which has caused large numbers of businesses to go bust and helped to create a yawning trade gap.

Alan Watkins, a leading political analyst and author of a book about Major's election to the Conservative Party leadership, said: "He has done what he was chosen to do: win an election which many in his party thought Mrs. Thatcher would have lost."

Some analysts, however, saw the outcome as a vindication of Thatcher's policies during her 11-year term as prime minister.

Peter Jenkins, author of a book on the Thatcher years, said it was wrong to blame Kinnock for leading Labour to defeat. "Labour lost because it was Labour," Jenkins wrote in the Independent newspaper.

Norman Stone, professor of modern history at Oxford University, says Thatcher's achievement was to win over to the Conservative Party many voters who in the past had supported Labour. "She encouraged them to buy shares and to purchase the houses in which they live," says Stone. "She tamed the trade unions and restored the British middle class. Many such people supported John Major last Thursday."

Thatcher, who has retired from the Commons, is expected to take a seat in the House of Lords.

The Conservatives' parliamentary majority was reduced from 99 seats to 21, but their share of the total vote was nearly 42 percent, virtually unchanged from the last election in 1987. Failure of polls

The biggest surprise of the election was the failure of opinion polls to predict anything like the correct outcome. Almost without exception they forecast a narrow Labour victory. In the end the total Conservative vote was 7 1/2 percent higher than Labour's.

Ivor Crewe, professor of government at Essex University, said: "The election made fools of the polls and the pundits and politicians who depend on them."

Robert Worcester, chairman of the Mori polling organization, said the result showed that the voters' most important answer in the polls concerned their preference as prime minister.

Major had consistently outrun Kinnock in the polls, and the public had elected the man it believed to be the most capable prime minister, Worcester said.