JOHN MAJOR, four months into his job as Britain's prime minister, is coming under increasing fire from fellow Conservatives for something he cannot help: He is not Margaret Thatcher. The latest in a series of attacks on the Iron Lady's successor from inside the ranks of his own party came Saturday from Murdo Fraser, national chairman of the Young Conservatives, who fired a broadside at the prime minister.
"With Margaret Thatcher as party leader, there was never any doubt in which direction the Conservatives were headed. We all knew exactly where we stood. With John Major in charge, we are not quite so sure," he said. The prime minister had deserted Thatcherism, Mr. Fraser added.
The remarks by the head of the ruling party's youth wing drew an immediate rebuke from Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, who described them as "twaddle." But senior Conservatives still loyal to the deposed leader said privately that the young man was correct in his assessment of Mr. Major's performance so far.
Pressure on the prime minister intensified last week when Mrs. Thatcher held a meeting with members of Britain's Kurdish community and followed it with a public appeal for massive aid to be supplied to Kurds in Iraq.
Thatcherite supporters pointed out that while she was speaking out on the Kurds' behalf, Major was attending a football match. They said that when Thatcher rang 10 Downing Street and urged the government to help the Kurds, it took 24 hours for the prime minister to reply.
Apparently under pressure to act, Major first promised 163&gt;1 million ($1.8 million) in aid to the Kurds, then suddenly increased it to 163&gt;20 million ($35.8 million).
A former Thatcher minister, commenting on Fraser's criticisms of Major, said: "We are disappointed with the new prime minister, who does not appear able to act decisively. Also he is drifting away from many key points of Thatcher policy."
Major has been having his first vacation since taking up residence at 10 Downing Street last December.
Aides say he had hoped to relax and do some careful thinking about criticisms of his performance, which began mounting in the run-up to Easter. He also wanted to ponder a date for calling a general election.
Some at the Conservative Party central office still want a general election in June. Major and Mr. Patten are believed to favor October at the earliest.
At the root of Major's problems has been continuing uncertainty about the highly unpopular poll tax, a local government levy that Major has already said he intends to drop.
The prime minister's failure before Easter to spell out decisively the measures that will replace the poll tax led Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, to accuse him of indecisiveness.
Mr. Lawson's comments, which drew support from many Conservative members of Parliament (MPs), were taken up by Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party opposition leader, who said the prime minister was unable to make decisions. Mr. Kinnock's officials privately described the prime minister as "a wimp."
Major is returning from his vacation for a Cabinet committee meeting that has been asked to advise him tomorrow on what to put in place of the poll tax.
Major's difficulties are being made all the more acute by local government elections to be held on May 2.
If the Conservatives do badly at the polls, the prime minister seems likely to be accused of allowing uncertainty over the poll tax to erode his party's standing in the countryside.