Major's `Back to Basics' Runs Afoul of Scandal

The emphasis on British domestic policy has failed to unite Tories

PRIME Minister John Major's government is in acute disarray after nearly a month of political scandals, Cabinet infighting, and claims that Britain's leader has lost credibility.

There is open talk among Conservative Party supporters in London and the English countryside of an early leadership challenge to Mr. Major if he does not speedily reassert his authority.

At the heart of the crisis is bitter disagreement among Tories about Major's ``back-to-basics'' policy centering on family values and ethics in government. This clean image has come under fire in past weeks as two government ministers were forced to resign amid charges of sexual impropriety.

On Jan. 16, the man who took over from Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher in December 1990 became embroiled in a public argument with two mass-circulation newspapers that normally support Conservative governments.

The Daily Mail and the Sun both reported that at a private dinner party Major had sworn to ``crucify'' three right-wing Cabinet ministers who, he is said to have claimed, had tried to hijack the back-to-basics policy for their own ideological ends.

Officials at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's London residence, denied the reports and accused the two papers and other sections of the media of attempting to ``wage a campaign to destabilize the government'' and ``precipitate a general election.''

Major launched the back-to-basics policy last October in an attempt to heal Conservative Party wounds opened up by a long-running dispute about the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.

The prime minister tried to put the focus on family cohesion, better education, law and order, effective health care, and more accountable government.

But three senior Cabinet members decided to interpret the policy narrowly, arguing for greater personal morality and complaining that too much government money was being spent to support unmarried mothers. This reopened the wounds, and Major's failure to end the resulting squabbling has led to charges that he is weak and indecisive.

The back-to-basics policy became a topic of fervent public debate early in January when one government minister was forced to resign after disclosures that he had fathered a child outside marriage, and another quit the government when his wife committed suicide. It has since been widely reported that before his wife's death the minister had been having an affair with another woman.

Major attempted to quell the resulting public uproar by arguing that the back-to-basics policy did not have much to do with ``silly indiscretions'' by ministers. Within a day or two, Conservative members of Parliament began getting huge numbers of letters from voters arguing that private morality and the behavior of elected officials are linked.

Possibly the week's most damaging development for the government in the longer term was a charge by an official auditor that Conservative Party leaders of Westminster Council, the local government that has the Houses of Parliament at its geographical heart, had engaged in a form of gerrymandering.

The auditor said the Conservative-controlled Council for several years had deliberately forced poor people out of houses and apartments in marginal wards and sold their homes to voters thought likely to support the Conservatives at local elections. In the past, Westminster Council has been hailed by Lady Thatcher and Major as ``the jewel in the crown'' of Conservative local government.

If the 10 people accused of gerrymandering are found guilty, the auditor says they are likely to have to repay the council 21 million British pounds ($31 million) in lost rentals and misspent funds.

As he wrestled with a full-scale government crisis, yesterday Major found himself having to appear as a witness at a public inquiry into the government's role in selling arms to Iraq before the Gulf war.

John Smith, leader of the Labour opposition, has accused the prime minister and several Cabinet ministers of misleading Parliament about arms sales.

Three Cabinet ministers have said they will resign from the government if the inquiry finds that they acted improperly over the sale of arms to Iraq.

Meanwhile, the news media has focused on the charge that the prime minister is fast losing control of his own administration and may have to be replaced.

On Jan. 13, he called a Cabinet meeting and demanded that, according to an official spokesman, all ministers should ``sing from the same hymn sheet.'' On the next day, Michael Portillo, a right-wing Cabinet minister, delivered a speech that differed sharply from the agreed Cabinet line on back-to-basics.

Instead of calling on the party faithful to rally around the prime minister, Mr. Portillo said Britain was suffering from ``the poison of a new disease'' of ``self-destructive national cynicism.'' He charged ``opinion-formers in the media'' with setting out ``to undermine established institutions,'' including Parliament, the monarchy, and the church.

After the speech, Sir George Gardiner, leader of an influential group of right-wing Conservative parliamentarians, told Portillo that if he wanted to ``take over at No. 10,'' the group would ``help you if and when you apply.''

Local government and European Parliament elections will be held in May and June. Unless the government's fortunes pick up before then, political analysts agree that the Conservatives are bound to get a severe drubbing at the hands of voters.

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