JOHN MAJOR wants to build a close working relationship with President-elect Clinton. But the British prime minister's advisers concede that getting on friendly personal terms with the incoming president is already proving a struggle.
London's hopes are not high that a "special" relationship - of the type forged between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when they held power in the 1980s - can readily be established between 10 Downing Street and the Clinton White House.
Mr. Major's Labour Party opponents say that is because advice supplied by the Conservative Party to President Bush's reelection campaign displeased Mr. Clinton and strained relations between the two leaders. When Major flew last month to Washington to bid farewell to Mr. Bush, Clinton told the prime minister that he lacked time to see him. Major had to make do with a phone call to Clinton and a meeting with Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr.
Major's advisers were galled to find that a group of senior Labour figures, headed by Margaret Beckett, the party's deputy leader, had beaten the prime minister to Washington and had already held talks with members of the Clinton team.
"The Conservatives made the mistake of offering advice in the closing weeks of the Bush campaign, apparently in the hope that Bush would be reelected," a Labour Party adviser says. "That was a serious misjudgment."
In October, when the Bush campaign was wilting, Conservative strategists reportedly suggested to White House chief of staff James Baker III that the president should attack Clinton's tax proposals, much as Major had successfully criticized Labour's revenue plans in Britain's April general election.
While Conservative Party strategists were offering advice to the Bush team in the last month of the presidential campaign, the Labour Party's communications director was in Little Rock cultivating Clinton contacts.
The British government also allowed itself to become indirectly involved in Republican attempts to discredit Clinton. Asked in late November to arrange a pre-Christmas meeting between Major and the incoming president, the transition team reminded Downing Street officials that the British Home Office had authorized an American journalist to comb through its files, looking for information about Clinton's travel movements when he was studying in Britain.
Since 1945 and throughout the cold war, British prime ministers have set great store on fostering close working relations with US presidents. Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher described each other as friends who shared a belief in market principles and resolute opposition to communism.
When Bush succeeded Reagan, White House policy seemed to aim for closer relations with Germany at the expense of the London-Washington link. But Bush found Thatcher and Major were his best supporters in Europe during the Gulf War.
A SENIOR British pro-government parliamentary source last week said Major had "high hopes" of getting on "good personal terms" with Clinton and his team, but indicated the prime minister might have to accept that the US will be more inclined to deal with the European Community as a regional grouping rather than bilaterally with individual members.
Clinton's "obvious concern to concentrate on domestic problems" in the early months of his presidency would "set limits to how much we can expect from the relationship, at least in the early stages," the source said.
But Major faces other problems. Clinton has said he is unhappy with the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland and has spoken of appointing a special envoy to keep tabs on the British government's handling of it. Major was said to have hoped to explain personally to Clinton his government's policy on Northern Ireland before the meeting between the two fell through.
A litmus test of how well Major and Clinton will get on, officials say, is policy toward Bosnia. Britain has been reluctant to heed Bush administration calls for military intervention. Major wants to directly discuss his approach with the president-elect.
Aware of Clinton's coolness, Raymond Seitz, US ambassador to London, has worked to soothe British feelings. Stressing the importance of moves toward a united European Community, he says the US wants Britain to be active in European affairs, saying Britain is "a close ally."
Major's Labour opponents, however, say Clinton is nearer the Labour Party than to the Conservatives in his approach to economic and social matters. After meeting with Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D) of Washington and other leading Democrats, Ms. Beckett said the Clinton administration, like the Labour Party, is committed to "the politics of community," claiming this set them apart from Major.