LEADERS of Britain's Conservative government are eyeing next month's elections for the European Parliament with deep apprehension.
In the wake of sweeping local government losses in the May 5 elections where Conservatives won only 27 percent of the vote, which put them in third place after the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister John Major has conceded that he is likely to be challenged for the party leadership in November.
But he has vowed to fight to stay in control of the leadership.
John Smith, the Labour leader, and Paddy Ashdown, his Liberal Democrat counterpart, are forecasting that their parties' candidates will inflict severe damage on their Conservative opponents in the June 9 elections for the European Parliament.
John Carlisle, a senior Conservative member of the Westminster Parliament, said he is prepared to challenge Mr. Major for the party leadership. ``The prime minister's position is almost untenable,'' he said.
Sir Edward Heath, the former premier, who took Britain into the European Community in 1973, described the local election results as ``appalling'' and called on Major to ``reexamine the policies that have caused us so much trouble.''
He singled out imposition of a tax on domestic fuel and controversial education and health policies as the main reasons for what Major himself described on May 6 as ``a disappointing result.''
In Thursday's local elections, the Conservatives lost 429 council seats. One of their most-striking defeats was in Croydon, a former Tory stronghold. The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats also won control of councils in hitherto ``true blue'' Conservative heartlands in the English countryside.
David Butler, Britain's leading expert on election statistics, calculates that in terms of votes, the outcome of the May 5 vote was ``the worst disaster the Conservatives have ever suffered.
``Usually the party can count on getting about 40 percent of the nationwide vote,'' Mr. Butler said. ``This time they got 27 percent.'' In England and Wales the result put them in overall third place after Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Major's most immediate problem is the upcoming Euro-elections. Over the weekend Conservative Party supporters throughout the country assessed their chances of avoiding another debacle. The prospects do not look encouraging.
A survey in London's Sunday Times showed that the Conservatives are likely to win only 12 of the 84 Euro-seats that Britain will contest. This would mean defeat for 20 Conservatives who are currently members of the European Parliament.
Outwardly, senior ministers in Major's government are putting on a display of unity. Privately, they concede that many traditionally Conservative voters are unhappy about the government's policies, and with Major's leadership.
``We are profoundly divided on Europe, and the public knows it,'' one senior Conservative MP says. ``Also, the local election outcome demonstrates that people see these votes as opportunities to punish us.''
SIR George Gardiner, a leading right-wing Conservative member of Parliament, thinks Major should ``remove the deadwood'' from his Cabinet and ``replace them with Euro-skeptics.'' If this is not done, he says, ``the present slide in our fortunes will continue and we shall be wiped off the European Parliament map.''Conservative insiders say Major will not be able to order a Cabinet reshuffle before June 9 without appearing to panic.
But if the Conservatives sustain big losses in the European elections, Major seems certain to be in still worse trouble.
The threat by Mr. Carlisle to offer himself as a candidate for the Conservative party leadership angered Major. Soon after the MP had spoken, the prime minister declared: ``If anyone chooses to engage in a fight, I will be there waiting for them.''
Tristan Garel-Jones, a close friend of the premier, says he will ``fight like an alley cat,'' and forecasts a contentious struggle in any contest for the party leadership.