Britain's Major Is in the Mire as Ethics Campaign Stumbles

JOHN MAJOR's ``back-to-basics'' campaign, intended to be a rallying call for the ruling Conservatives, has brought the prime minister nothing but trouble.

Policies that were meant to unify the Conservative Party after last year's bruising fight to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on European Union have instead put the party on the defensive and in danger of defeat in upcoming local elections.

But after a string of high-profile scandals and forced resignations involving leading parliamentary supporters, Britain's least popular prime minister since 1945 hopes to take his ethics-in-government theme in a new direction.

Instead of stressing issues of private morality and family values, Mr. Major will press for higher standards of conduct in policy areas such as education, housing, health, and law and order.

An official statement issued from 10 Downing Street on Feb. 14 said: ``As far as the prime minister is concerned, there is absolutely no question of giving up this policy.'' Major, the statement said, sees back-to-basics as ``a set of hard-edged government policies'' aimed at ``meeting the concerns of ordinary people in today's world.''

The irony for Major is that his government gives the appearance of being destabilized and under unsure leadership at a time when unemployment is falling and the British economy is growing faster than all other economies in the European Union. Inflation is stable at 3 percent.

Another embarrassment for the beleaguered prime minister is that new signs of a split in the Conservative Party over policy toward Europe have begun to emerge. On Feb. 14, Norman Lamont, whom Major fired as chancellor of the exchequer in 1993, told a London conference of business leaders that there should be a referendum before Britain, under the terms of Maastricht, decides whether to join a single European currency.

The prime minister's attempt to redirect back-to-basics follows the Feb. 12 resignation of Hartley Booth, a junior member of the Major government who admitted to having an affair with a House of Commons researcher. A week earlier, Stephen Milligan, a Conservative parliamentarian and aide to the defense secretary, was found dead at home under bizarre circumstances.

In the last two months seven leading Conservative parliamentarians have found themselves thrust into the public eye by what Major's supporters say is an antigovernment ``feeding frenzy'' by reporters from mass-circulation tabloid newspapers.

THE papers have drawn attention to an alleged disparity between back-to-basics - a theme based on family values and unveiled by Major at the Conservative Party congress last October - and the actual behavior of Conservative members of parliament.

Major's supporters express bitterness toward newspapers, saying they have whipped up an atmosphere of artificial hysteria about the private lives of Conservative members of Parliament. Lord Archer, who is expected to become the party's chairman later this year, accuses papers of pooling large numbers of reporters to investigate rumors about MPs.

Editors deny charges of being in the grip of a feeding frenzy.

The prime minister's seeming inability to shake off the ill fortune that has dogged his government since it was reelected in April 1992 is encouraging significant numbers of his supporters to ask privately whether he should be allowed to continue as Conservative Party leader.

The government stands the risk of losing Milligan's vacant seat in the upcoming May by-election; it would take a swing of only 12 percent of the vote for the opposition Liberal Democrats to take the seat. During two by-elections in the past year the government's opponents have achieved swings twice that size.

Voting for the Milligan seat will coincide with local government elections in many parts of England. A month later nationwide elections will be held for the European Parliament.

Officials at the Conservative Party central office concede that the party is likely to lose heavily in these contests.

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