BRITAIN'S CONSERVATIVES WILL BE FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIVES IN NEXT WEEK'S GENERAL ELECTION
BRITAIN'S CONSERVATIVES WILL BE FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIVES IN NEXT WEEK'S GENERAL ELECTION
The first word many Britons use to describe John Major is “nice.” And on the campaign trail last week, the Conservative prime minister did little to disappoint them. He smiled serenely as a dozen far-left demonstrators heckled him outside a hospital in the northern city of York. He kept smiling as he made politician’s small talk with patients inside. And his grin never slackened when he found himself an hour later at a garden centre, admiring daffodils and confessing to surprised shoppers that “I’m really a bush and shrub lover.” Mary Kelsey, a middleaged woman who was buying a bag of peat moss, was clearly delighted by a glimpse of Major. “Oh, he does seem nice,” said Kelsey. But her friend Helen Clark posed the question that many anxious Conservatives were asking: “Is that really enough?”
As Britain’s month-long election campaign passed its midpoint last week, the answer from opinion polls was: probably not. Major’s Conservatives, hamstrung by a deep recession that has cut into their traditional support, narrowly trailed the opposition Labour Party by between one and three percentage points. If Labour keeps that lead until the election on April 9, it could form a minority government, end 13 years of Tory rule in Britain and evict nice, decent, mild-mannered John Major from 10 Downing Street. That prospect left Conservatives jittery, and made some Tories openly critical of the party’s lacklustre campaign. Others were left quietly questioning whether Major has the toughness and political skills to fight his way back to office.
Publicly, Conservative organizers continued to insist last week that the 49-year-old Major is their best asset. When he replaced Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in November, 1990, they promoted his background as a poor boy from the slums of south London in order to
drive home the point that the party was moving from harsh Thatcherism to a softer brand of caring conservatism. Major’s personal popularity runs ahead of his party’s, and the Tories’ election manifesto carries a large photo of his eversmiling face on its cover. That emphasis on a party leader’s personality is still unusual in British politics. Major, his supporters maintain, combines firmness on bedrock Conservative principles with an open, approachable image that is the opposite of Thatcher’s forbidding presence. “He has great healing qualities, but he has a great innner strength as well,” said Andrew Thomson, who served as Major’s political organizer for she years in his Huntingdon constituency northeast of London, before going on to work as Thatcher’s agent for most of the 1980s. Added Thomson: “There are people in the party now wondering if he’s tough enough. But when the chips are down, that will show.”
The chips certainly were down last week as the Tory campaign continued to sputter.
But there was little sign that Major’s personal performance could erase Labour’s narrow lead. Going into the election for a new 651-seat House of Commons, a key part of the Conservatives’ strategy was to present Major himself as their most important new offering to voters. With a new leader and some new policies, the Tories clearly hoped that Britons would conclude that they had already had a change of government—without needing to have a change of party. Even Major’s blandness could be promoted as a refreshing change from Thatcher’s overbearing presence. But with their party in trouble, some Tories questioned whether Major’s low-key manner was a distinct handicap.
Reporters from pro-Tory newspapers even complained to Major’s aides that he was not giving them the type of punchy quotes that they wanted as ammunition against Labour.
Major continued to reel off statistics-laden answers to their questions. When Thatcher herself made an unexpected campaign appearance alongside Major last week, her still-fiery rhetoric made her successor’s performance seem uninspiring by comparison. Thatcher had been expected to play only a minor role in the campaign; as a result, her high-profile speech to Tory candidates in London was widely interpreted as a bid by organizers to spice up their unexciting efforts. The Conservatives were clearly balancing two factors: Thatcher’s stillpowerful presence could infuse party loyalists with extra enthusiasm, but it could also work against the Tories by reminding voters of her unpopular policies.
In small groups, Major can charm voters with a gentle manner and careful attention to their views. But in front of large audiences, the prime minister’s flat voice and awkward body language dampen his message. Tory organizers tried to sharpen his speeches and provided him with an elaborate $1-million portable set for some big rallies with party supporters. But he left even some of those Tory enthusiasts shuffling their feet in the middle of his speeches.
Some independent analysts said that Tory
organizers at party headquarters in London’s Smith Square were divided and rattled last week as the possibility of defeat became more realistic. Alan Beattie, a political scientist at the London School of Economics who follows the Conservative Party closely, said that some senior Tories wanted Major to raise the campaign temperature and confront Labour and its leader, Neil Kinnock, more directly. But that, Beattie added, presented problems of both style and substance. If Major attempts to deliver more aggressive speeches, he said, “his voice rises and he sounds all scratchy.”
As well, Beattie said, that strategy would
require even more strident attacks on Labour. And adopting a negative approach would reinforce the widespread impression that, after 13 years in office, the Tories have little new and positive to offer of their own. Another problem with shifting tactics is Major himself: the prime minister made it clear that he would not pretend to be what he is not. Voters, he said last week, can spot a phoney a mile away, “so I’m going to go on being me.”
In fact, the Tories have put Major front and centre in their propaganda—particularly in a
10-minute TV broadcast of his early life, directed by Hollywood film-maker John Schlesinger, called The Journey. Televised during the campaign’s first week, it showed Major going back to his roots in south London, reminding voters that the prime minister tasted poverty and unemployment before rising to the highest office in the land.
Major’s story has already entered Britain’s political folklore. He grew up in lower-middleclass comfort in the London suburb of Cheam, where the city merges with rural Surrey. His father, Thomas, a colorful character who was at various times a juggler, acrobat and trapeze
artist, had retired from show business and started a business making garden ornaments in his backyard. But in 1955, when John Major was 12, the business went bankrupt and the future prime minister suffered the blow that shaped his outlook and prospects.
The Majors were forced to move to a dingy two-room apartment on Coldharbour Lane in the tough south London district of Brixton, where impoverished black immigrants from the Caribbean were already beginning to settle. The bathroom was down three flights of stairs, and one of the building’s other tenants was a professional thief. The young Major continued to attend school in his old Cheam
neighborhood, suffering the humiliation of suddenly being a poor boy wearing a secondhand blazer. Friends have said that the experience gave him a lasting anger at patronizing behavior.
Not surprisingly, Major left school at 16. He worked briefly as a clerk for an insurance company, then spent nine months drawing unemployment benefits—failing even to get a job as a bus conductor. Later, he worked as a laborer. At 22, he found a job as a bank teller and finally began to forge a career as a banker. His father’s vaudeville background and Major’s eventual career have prompted a joke that he is the only man ever to have run away from the circus to join a bank.
Long before he started with the Standard Chartered Bank, however, Major had become
interested in politics. He joined the Young Conservatives at 16, even though Brixton was solidly Labour at the time. In The Journey, Major challenges presumptions that a poor boy from Brixton should be left-wing. “Why should I be a socialist?” he asks rhetorically. His typically long-winded answer: “It is people in that background who have actually suffered most from the fact that we have had a society in which the free-enterprise system moved ahead and then was blocked as one moved over the years from Conservative governments to socialist governments.”
Major worked his way up through the ranks of both the Standard Chartered Bank and the
Conservative Party using a combination of hard work and careful cultivation of his superiors. After winning the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdon in 1979, he was given government posts—such as the powerful backroom role of chief Tory whip—that attracted little public attention but allowed him to impress fellow MPs. As a result, Major was largely overlooked as a possible successor to Thatcher until just a year or so before he emerged as party leader and Britain’s youngest prime minister of the century at 47. “He came up the inside track,” said Thomson, his former organizer. “With John, people are always asking, ‘Where’d this fellow come from?’ ”
Even in Tory ranks there is still some confusion over what type of conservatism Major actually believes in. Some Tories on the right
wing of the party continue to pine for the days of full-blooded, free-enterprise Thatcherism, although others have reconciled themselves to Major’s toned-down version. Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative party chairman whose far-right views and attack-dog personality made him even more Thatcherite than Thatcher herself, said of the two politicians: “Mrs. Thatcher is conservative by instinct, intellect and philosophy from the very beginning, and her politics flowed from that. In that she is a very unusual conservative. Most people become conservatives from experience, by finding out what works, as John Major did. So they come from opposite ends.”
Major himself declines to define his philosophy, although he has singled out Iain Macleod, a leading British Conservative in the 1950s and 1960s who championed socially conscious “One Nation” Toryism, as a hero. And he insists that he is building on Thatcher’s achievements, not reversing them. “On the basic themes of the Conservative Party—choice, opportunity, ownership—you would find little to choose between Mrs. Thatcher and me,” he said recently. “We’re a very broad church, the Conservative Party. That’s one reason we’ve spent getting on to two-thirds of the past 250 years in government.”
Last week, however, Major’s focus was on the much more immediate concern of saving his party from impending defeat. The task is an awesome one. Despite the shortcomings in the party’s campaign and Major’s personal performance, the Conservatives’ overwhelming problem is out of their control. As members of the governing party, they are saddled with blame for the continuing recession that has sent unemployment and bankruptcies soaring in Britain.
In hindsight, say many analysts, Major may well have missed his best chance at re-election a year ago. In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, the new prime minister’s popularity was high and the recession had not yet bitten deeply. Major has said that he did not call a vote then because it would not have been right to take quick advantage of the war’s outcome, and his government had not yet come up with a replacement for Thatcher’s widely disliked tax policies that had sparked riots across Britain. Should he lose power, history may well judge that he was too nice for his own good—and for that of his party.
TURNING AGAINST THE TORIES
Herbert Taylor, 64, and wife Eileen, 59, are typical of many middleclass Britons who voted for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s but appear to be swinging to Labour in the upcoming election. Former part-owners of a bookbinding company, the retired couple now live on a combined annual income of $20,000 from investments and state pensions. They live in a semi-detached house in South London’s Tory-held Eltham constituency.
■ “I am changing my allegiance because this government has ground down the social structure in this country. If you are a politician, you must have a social conscience. If you can’t see that the poor people are getting poorer, the homeless getting worse off, the sick getting worse care, then you aren’t fit to govern.
I can’t vote Tory—they’ve lost their social conscience.”
■ “We have had the poll tax, cuts in services to hospitals and libraries, and are fighting to hold on to everything. After 13 years, we need a change.”
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