British Prime Minister Uses European Vote To Rally Supporters
But campaign against beggars shows signs of backfiring
PRIME Minister John Major has launched an all-out assault on his political opponents in the run-up to elections for the European Parliament on Thursday, but opinion polls suggest that Britain's ruling Conservative Party is likely to take a severe drubbing.
Mr. Major, whose own political future is under threat, tried to boost his support among Conservative voters early last week by calling for the removal of beggars from the streets of British cities.
In a bid to placate opponents of the European Union, he is also holding out the vision of a ``multispeed Europe'' in which each country could decide how much unity it wants.
Although the Conservatives have the advantage of confronting a Labour Party whose leader, John Smith, died last month, opinion surveys show many of their Euro-candidates will fare poorly on Thursday.
A June 3 Gallup poll put the Conservatives in third place, 30 points behind Labour and slightly behind the centrist Liberal Democratic Party. In the poll, Labour scored 54 percent, the Liberal Democrats 21.5 percent, and the ruling Conservatives 21 percent.
Another poll conducted by the election's center at Plymouth University and published yesterday forecast that Labour could win 68 European Parliament seats, the Conservatives eight, and the Liberal Democrats 11. The Conservatives currently hold 32 Euro-seats.
Test for Major
Such a massive loss would be a humiliation for Major, and even his most solid supporters privately concede that he might find it difficult to continue as prime minister if things turned out that badly.
The Sunday Telegraph, which supports the Conservatives, reported yesterday that Major is likely to face a formal request from his backbenchers to resign if the party fails to win at least 10 Euro-seats.
But Major insists he will complete his full term, regardless of the June 9 outcome. ``I was elected to carry out a program for five years,'' he said last week, ``and I have every intention of carrying it out and presenting the whole of my record at the next general election.''
The Labour Pary's campaign for the European Parliament has coincided with attempts by senior figures in the Party to position themselves for a leadership contest set to be held next month.
The front-runner is Tony Blair, the opposition Home Secretary, but he is likely to be challenged by left-wing candidates. Party insiders see Employment spokesman John Prescott as his most probable opponent on the Party's left.
Gordon Brown, the Labour Party's chancellor of the exchequer, has already withdrawn and will throw his support behind Mr. Blair. Both Blair and Mr. Brown are modernizers who will likely appeal to moderate voters. Mr. Prescott can count on traditional trade-union support.
Major's attempt to gain political points by attacking the presence of a growing number of beggars in Britain's main cities at first appeared to be a tactical error. Margaret Beckett, Labour's acting leader, assailed the prime minister for scorning people who, she said ``are reduced to penury by the impact of Conservative policies over 15 years.'' Welfare groups, almost without exception, criticized the prime minister for his seeming heartlessness.
But Conservatives in southern England, where begging has been on the increase, said Major's remarks won the approval of people unhappy at being asked for money by vagrants and unemployed youths.
Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, in a June 2 speech, sharpened the attack on begging, saying many allegedly distressed people were ``beggars in designer jeans'' and ``an unacceptable feature of modern society.'' Blair responded by saying of the chancellor: ``He, too, is disheveled and aggressive, and keeps taking money off people in the street.''
The day after his affront of the impoverished, Major launched an attack on advocates of closer European integration, urging voters to support a ``multispeed Europe.''
In a series of speeches and interviews, he said Britain should be allowed to set its own pace in the EU and not be hurried into acceptance of political integration and a single European currency.
The Conservatives are deeply divided between those who support the EU and others who see it as a threat to national sovereignty. Major hopes his ``Euro-skeptical'' approach will appeal to wavering Conservatives who are tempted either to vote for Labour or the Liberal Democrats, or to abstain on Thursday.
To back up Major's claim that the EU should be a loosely united organization, Conservative officials have pointed to a two-year study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has come out in favor of deregulated labor markets and against minimum-wage legislation.
The Labour Party strongly favors a minimum wage and wants Britain to sign up to the Maastricht Treaty's ``social chapter'' on workers' rights. Major's strategy, Conservative officials say, is to urge voters not to punish the government by voting for parties that favor a centralized Europe.
A serious problem facing the Conservatives is the strong showing, notably in southwestern England, by the Liberal Democrats who currently have no seats in the European Parliament.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democratic leader, argues that disaffected Conservatives can safely throw their support behind his party, thus making clear their feelings about the Conservatives without backing Labour.