John Major's Plight is Akin to The Trials of George Bush

POLITICIANS and pundits alike agreed that, to remain in power, British Prime Minister John Major needed to win reelection as Conservative Party leader by a ''significant'' margin. His success in Tuesday's vote of Tory MPs apparently satisfied most tests of significance: 218 members gave him their support in a secret ballot, while just 89 backed challenger John Redwood and 22 abstained.

I was in Britain during the week before the vote and got to see firsthand the frustration and confusion many Conservatives felt as they confronted the choice Mr. Major forced them to make. Part of their problem stemmed from nothing more than old-fashioned politics, of course. The party has been taking it on the chin in a long string of local elections and parliamentary by-elections, and polls show it trailing the Labour Party badly. Would they at least help to limit future losses if they sacked Major now and went to the country with a fresh face? No one seemed to have a clue, and this left everyone grumpy.

But more than short-term politics frustrated Tory MPs. They like and admire Major. At the same time, they feel that his leadership is failing in some larger sense - although most couldn't say precisely what sense. So they went on prattling about Europe and the issue of a single currency as though that is really what mattered to them.

In his interesting mix of great strengths and one large weakness, John Major is remarkably like George Bush. The two men even came to power in much the same circumstance. Like Mr. Bush, Major succeeded a leader who had realigned the party and led it to notable successes. Major has seemed to many Conservatives a rather pale figure compared with Margaret Thatcher, just as Bush seemed uncharismatic in comparison with Ronald Reagan.

Like Bush, Major stands near the center of his party - which makes each a moderate conservative in the national spectrum. Last Sunday the prime minister insisted that ''I am not a factional politician,'' a claim Bush could have made with equal fairness. Major and Bush both had the misfortune to come to office after their parties' had been in power for some time and the impulses for change had built up. Bush was a one-term president, and Major still seems likely to be a one-term prime minister.

Politics is a rough and crudely competitive business. Yet, while neither would have made it to the top were he not intensely competitive, John Major and George Bush are men of great personal character and decency. Each feels a strong need for political restraint, which shows itself in an irresistible penchant - at once admirable and frustrating - for bland and cautious speech.

Able, of deep integrity, principled, decent, close to the center of their respective nations' political spectrums, Major and Bush have many of the qualities needed for effective democratic leadership. Nonetheless, Bush was an unsuccessful president in domestic affairs, despite success in foreign policy. And to date Major, for all his abilities, is a flop as prime minister. Many Republicans, including many admirers, were frustrated with Bush. For many of the same reasons, many Tories are exasperated with Major.

The two men's failings are remarkably similar. At a time of great unease about the ''state of the nation,'' each failed to speak convincingly about the direction in which the nation should be headed. The problems in this area are far more acute in Britain than in the United States, but the underlying worries are still much the same. The US and Britain have had extraordinary economic success since World War II. Britain lags somewhat, but it is far wealthier today than at any time previously. Economic successes have transformed British politics - something easily seen in the big swing away from socialism by the Labour Party under Tony Blair.

Still, few see Britain becoming a more successful society. Some of the angst accrues from the sharp decline Britain has experienced in global leadership. But it reaches well beyond a frustrated nationalism. On crime, drug use, the huge increase in the proportion of children born out of wedlock, and other social problems that seem impervious to economic answers, many Britons see a decline - as do many Americans - that jeopardizes the nation's moral health.

No national leader can succeed by being largely silent or unconvincing on the vast moral dimension where current anxieties are so great. Margaret Thatcher spoke to a sense of a British nation, and Ronald Reagan to a sense of an American nation, which in each case included but transcended economic matters. Bush failed to do so, outside of his Gulf war leadership.

Today in Britain, Major still seems unable to articulate a national direction and purpose despite his fellow citizens insistently saying that is what they want and need.

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