Britain's Premier Faces Doubts on Leadership

Conservatives urge Major to get a firmer grip on national policy

IN the latest sign of a weakening Conservative government, Prime Minister John Major's chief economic minister may be ousted in a top-level Cabinet shakeup.

Pressure for the removal of Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont began mounting in the aftermath of local elections May 6, which produced some of the ruling party's worst results in more than a century.

Mr. Major was forced to admit May 7 that his government had been given a "bloody nose" by a discontented electorate. Senior and rank-and-file Conservatives urged him to sack Mr. Lamont and other unpopular ministers and get a firmer personal grip on national policy.

Some senior Conservative policymakers are muttering ominously that if Mr. Major does not adopt a tougher leadership style and give the party and the country a clearer sense of direction, he could face a leadership challenge this fall.

"John is a nice chap," one government minister said, "but these results are disastrous. We need strong leadership and new ideas, and we are getting neither."

Major's government still has more than three years to run. Negative popular reaction to a recession that has put 3 million people out of work is not surprising. What has stunned political observers is the bitterness of the voters' mood.

The election outcome appeared to confirm the findings of a May 7 Gallup poll showing that Major heads the most unpopular government since 1945, with an approval rating of only 20 percent and falling.

Widespread demands that Lamont should go are putting the prime minister in an awkward position. His party is divided on the Maastricht Treaty on European unity, and if he replaces the chancellor with either a pro- or an anti-European, he runs the risk of deepening the division.

The election results were far worse than Conservative Party strategists had anticipated and set in train a bout of political soul-searching. Much of the post-poll analysis focused on Lamont, who has been in charge of the nation's finances throughout the country's worst recession since the 1930s. There was also surprisingly blunt discussion of Major's performance as prime minister.

"I don't see Major as a strong leader," said a Conservative voter in Kent, where his party was badly mauled. "I had respect for the guy, but he has turned out to be a wimp."

Michael Colvin, a Conservative parliamentarian, turned his fire on the chancellor: "Mr. Lamont's time is up."

"Obviously he must go," agreed John Carlisle, another Conservative backbencher. "It is a pity he did not resign last autumn."

A disgruntled government minister added: "There is a sense of drift in the country, and only the prime minister can put an end to it. There must be changes at the top."

The remarks were part of a groundswell of anger that developed when it became clear that the government had suffered humiliation at the hands of millions of voters, many of whom usually support the Conservative Party.

In a parliamentary by-election in the town of Newbury, near London, the ruling party saw its majority of 12,000 in the April 1992 general election turn into a 20,000-vote defeat at the hands of opposition Liberal Democrats.

In local government elections in southern England - traditionally a Conservative bastion - Major's party lost control of 15 of the 16 county councils contested, some of which they have held continuously since the 1880s.

A striking feature of the results was the success of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's second opposition party after Labour.

Ivor Crewe, a polling analyst, said the Liberal Democrats' good showing in Newbury and in the county elections suggested that the May 6 vote was more a rejection of the Conservatives than an endorsement of Labour.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, claimed that the Newbury and county results showed that by itself Labour could no longer mount an effective challenge to the Conservatives. "The time has arrived when Labour and ourselves must start thinking in terms of partnership," he said.

But John Smith, the Labour Party leader, said he was "not interested" in formal pacts with the Liberal Democrats.

Labour's candidate at Newbury won only 2 percent of the vote. It was his party's worst showing in a by-election since 1945.

Mr. Smith, however, claimed that Labour had done well in the county elections. Sensing disarray in government ranks, he called for Major to cancel Lamont's plan, announced in March, to levy a tax on consumers of domestic fuel.

Criticism of Major reflects a feeling in Conservative ranks that he has made too many mistakes, particularly since the general election 13 months ago. He has failed to put an end to parliamentary bickering over Maastricht, retreated from a decision to close 33 coal mines, and has appeared indecisive over how to respond to the Bosnian crisis.

At Newbury the successful Liberal Democrat candidate made attacks on the government's economic policies the main plank of his platform.

In a bid to counter the Liberal Democrat attacks, Conservative Party managers sent Lamont to Newbury to help the local Conservative candidate, but the chancellor misjudged the mood. At a rally he was asked by a journalist whether he had made any mistakes, and replied in the words of Edith Piaf: "Je ne regrette rien."

Hearing that comment, one Conservative voter decided to support the Liberal Democrat candidate, and said: "I expected him to say sorry - and I expected him to say it in English."

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