A Long Week for Britain's Major

Conservative backbenchers opposed to EC unity see opportunity in premier's stumbling

AFTER his stunning general election victory in April, John Major hoped to be riding high in the closing months of 1992. Instead he is having to fight a rearguard battle to assert his own authority and the credibility of his government.

After a series of policy reversals forced on him by a deepening recession and ministerial blunders, he has been rated Britain's least popular prime minister since opinion polling began half a century ago.

A week of political turmoil, triggered by a decision to shut down most of the country's coal mines with the loss of more than 30,000 jobs, has produced what leading Conservative members of Parliament see as a reversal of Major's economic policy and acceptance by the prime minister that he has been running his government ineptly.

The prime minister barely averted defeat at the hands of his parliamentary supporters yesterday. The price of his 13-vote victory in the 651-seat House of Commons was a public admission that it had misread the mood of the nation on energy policy, and a switch to pro-growth approach to the flagging economy.

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of a powerful committee of Conservative backbenchers, helped to force Major into the policy reversals by mobilizing opposition against the mine closures.

The Conservative backbenchers took issue with Michael Heseltine, the minister responsible for energy policy, who had announced on Oct. 13 that 31 of 50 coal mines were to be closed. That decision produced a tidal wave of public protest.

At first, Mr. Heseltine, with Major's backing, refused to heed the public. But when roughly 40,000 miners and other workers marched on Parliament Wednesday, Major put the closures on hold.

Major then gave in to backbench pressure to rethink his energy and economic policies, including consideration of job-creating capital projects and lowered interest rates.

"Most people today believe it is right to look at a strategy that will bring recovery and growth, and put back in work those of our fellow citizens who are not in work," Major said in a television interview.

This was regarded as a significant departure from the government's stress on low inflation and tight government spending.

Despite the prime minister's backtracking, six Conservative parliamentarians cast their ballots against the government in yesterday's Commons vote; several more abstained.

One who threw his support behind Major said: "John has got through this one, but he has been put on notice to do a better job as prime minister, and to listen harder to the people."

The Parliament member added: "Michael Heseltine bears heavy responsibility for what has happened."

To make matters worse, results of an opinion survey by the Mori organization hit Major's desk during the crisis.

The poll, published in the European newspaper, suggested that only 19 percent of the British public now had confidence in Major and 46 percent thought he should resign.

Roughly two-thirds said Heseltine and Norman Lamont, chancellor of the exchequer, should be sacked.

Sensing an opportunity, the Labour opposition has sought to exploit Major's difficulties.

Mr. Smith accused the government of incompetence in its handling of the pit closures and said Major was letting Britain drift at the mercy of economic events.

The latter charge may have prompted the prime minister to announce Tuesday a growth policy and to confirm that he was no longer committed to achieving zero inflation.

There are signs that the government's troubles with its own supporters are far from over. Parliamentary sources say that as many as 20 Conservatives - enough to ensure a government defeat - have told Major and Heseltine that unless they are satisfied with the way the policy review is conducted, they will return to the attack.

Even more threatening for Major are Conservative opponents of the Maastricht Treaty on European integration. Having seen him back down on membership of the ERM, the pit closures, and economic policy, they hope he can be persuaded to do the same on ratification of the treaty.

Officials at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, accused anti-Maastricht campaigners of circulating rumors about Major's physical and mental condition. They said the rumors, which were front-page news in the London Times, were being floated by opponents of his European policy.

The prime minister's officials denied the rumors. Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative party, called the reports "inaccurate and malicious."

David Mellor, a former government minister and one of Major's closest friends, told the Times: "He is going through a crisis. I know that it is deeply painful and distressing to him, but he will not buckle."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.