Major's Minor Key

IT is not starting off as John Major's year. The British prime minister was unhappy with the visa Washington approved for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But his real problem is his own falling political star. If he does not reverse this soon, the British parliamentary system may not allow him to finish this year as England's head of government.

Mr. Major's political footing has been eroding since his surprisingly strong electoral showing last April. There was talk in December of political ``bounce,'' but a series of mishaps, including a ``back to basics'' message that has been universally ridiculed and a series of attacks from the right and the left of the Tory Party, has left the prime minister in a fight for his political life. He got no help this weekend from Deputy Finance Minister Michael Portillo: In a speech at Southampton University, he said that ``in a number of other countries'' people succeed in business or education through corruption. Labour Party leaders immediately called the speech xenophobic and a sign that Major is not in control of his party.

The prime minister had hoped that his own recent speech in Leeds on a return to family values would sell. But the hoped-for bounce fell flat when Major's former chancellor of the exchequer, Norman Lamont, called him ``weak and hopeless'' in the Times of London. A day later a new coalition of influential backbenchers on the Tory left said that it no longer had confidence in Major. Matters worsened when a coalition from the Tory right announced that it would meet with the prime minister to demand that he reorganize the government and name a new set of right-wing ministers.

Major is gamely sticking with policies that he says have led to an economic recovery with lower unemployment and more growth than in other European Union states. Britain's interest rates have stabilized since it quit the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the fall of 1992. Tory press guru Christopher Meyer has left his No. 2 spot in the Washington embassy for Downing Sreet to act as a kind of David Gergen of British politics. Mr. Meyer's influence may have been behind Major's forceful rejection of the Tory demands in a two-minute meeting last Tuesday. Such decisiveness has been lacking at No. 10, and mainstreamers on the left and right applauded his tough show.

Major has reportedly smoothed a Tory split over the Maastricht Treaty. But the question remains: Can Major still unify the party more broadly? If he fails, a summer showdown between the Tory left and right is waiting, with Kenneth Clarke leading the former, and Mr. Portillo, a Margaret Thatcher loyalist, heading the latter.

Britain is influential in world politics and needs stability at the top. Major needs to find a program and stick with it.

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