PRIME Minister John Major and his ruling Conservatives are facing a powerful challenge in the shape of Tony Blair, the newly elected leader of the opposition Labour Party.
In an attempt to lessen the threat to a government suffering what many observers see as the inevitable fatigue of holding office continuously for 15 years, Mr. Major ordered changes to his Cabinet the day before Mr. Blair's landslide victory July 21.
But the prime minister's personal standing remains at an all-time low, while Blair's appears to be soaring. A Gallup poll yesterday showed nearly three times as many voters thought Blair would make a better leader than Major. And in a bid to swing behind him the 10 to 15 percent of middle class ``floating'' voters, essential to a Labour victory at the next election, Blair has begun outlining policies far removed from orthodox socialism.
Blair, succeeding John Smith who died in May, has warned trade unions to expect no favors. He told them bluntly that ``the ... image traditionally associated with the Labour Party'' is a thing of the past.
In speeches during the leadership campaign, Blair promised to create jobs for the 2.8 million unemployed by wedding private capital to government initiatives over a broad range of industry.
In another departure from old-fashioned socialist dogma, Blair consistently stresses the need to be tough on crime, but is careful to add that current crime levels would not be so high if Major's government had done more to combat unemployment.
Facing a youthful Labour leader who has what Conservatives concede is an attractive television image, Major last week named Jeremy Hanley as Conservative Party chairman, dropped four Cabinet ministers, and promoted more than a dozen younger men and women to middle-rank government posts.
But questioned by Gallup 24 hours after Blair's victory, 61 percent of respondents said Blair would make a better prime minister, while 23 percent favored Major.
David Mellor, a former Cabinet minister and one of Major's closest political friends, said yesterday: ``Make no mistake, Labour under Blair is electable.'' The Conservatives have to ``sit up'' and ``get their act together.'' Otherwise they are likely to lose office in the general election expected in 1996, Mr. Mellor says.
When Mr. Hanley learned the result of the Gallup poll, he ordered an immediate membership drive with the aim of fostering grass-roots support for the party among young Conservatives.
But over the weekend, Blair's officials signaled an onslaught on what Major has conceded is one of the government's weaker policy areas: education.
In the Cabinet reshuffle, John Patten, the education secretary, was unceremoniously fired and offered no other post. Labour accuses Mr. Patten of having alienated teachers and saddled pupils unnecessarily with complex written examinations.
A Labour source said the party's new education program, to be unveiled this week, will be radical and a ``welcome change'' from Patten's ``arrogant, know-all approach.''
A measure of the alarm in government circles created by Blair's rise and policies came in the pages of the Sunday Telegraph, normally a staunch Conservative supporter. It warned that Blair was determined to fight the government ``on its own ground.''
There was a danger that Blair would blur the line between Conservative and Labour and win over skilled working-class voters as well as middle-class voters, the Telegraph stated.
It added: ``If voters are faced with two parties holding roughly the same political terrain, they may decide to ditch a dull and plodding John Major for a more visionary Tony Blair.''