With friends like these, John Major must have wondered last week, who needs enemies? First came Margaret Thatcher, his onetime political mentor and his predecessor as British prime minister. Now Baroness Thatcher, she rose in the House of Lords on June 7 and implicitly accused Major of a “disgraceful betrayal” of British voters by pushing for approval of the Maastricht treaty on European union without first holding a referendum. Then came Norman Lamont, once one of Major’s closest allies, and finance minister until the prime minister finally yielded to political pressures and dumped him from cabinet on May 27.
Last week, Lamont took his revenge. In a scathing assessment of Major’s government delivered in the House of Commons, Lamont portrayed the Tories as weak and drifting. “We give the impression of being in office, but not in power,” he said as Major sat stony-faced in his seat. “Unless this approach is changed, the government will not survive and will not deserve to survive.”
Lamont’s attack could hardly have been more pointed or more damaging to a prime minister already lurching from one political crisis to another. Major astonished his critics 14 months ago when he came from behind and led Britain’s Tories to a fourth straight electoral victory. It has been downhill ever since. A stubborn recession, mounting unemployment and a string of political blunders sent Major’s popularity into a tailspin. He tried to stem the tide by firing Lamont, whose credibility was fatally undermined last September when he was forced to devalue the pound after insisting for weeks that he would not do so. But Major’s image as a weak leader was already firmly fixed in the public mind. In a Gallup poll released on June 4, just 21 per cent of Britons surveyed said that he was doing a good job, the lowest
rating for a prime minister since British polling began in 1938. Lamont’s tirade will only make things worse. Stung by Major’s decision to throw him overboard, he accused his former boss of overreacting to short-term crises and of lacking a long-term vision. That is exactly the criticism that right-wing Tories and independent analysts have aimed at him for months.
Some of the prime minister’s critics go further, suggesting that he was promoted far beyond his talents when the Tories selected him to replace Thatcher in November, 1990. William Rees-Mogg, one of Britain’s most influential commentators, raised eyebrows last month when he dismissively suggested in the London Times that Major should never have risen beyond junior cabinet rank.
Major’s defenders take grim comfort in the fact that almost all Western leaders share his unpopularity. “It’s something that z is quite global,” one of d his senior advisers said as he ticked off a list of leaders, from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to French President François Mitterrand, whose personal standing among their electorates is also low. They say that Major’s popularity will recover as Britain’s economy returns to prosperity. And although Major’s personal following among Conservatives is not large, he has one significant advantage: while his bitterest party critics are among Thatcher’s old loyalists, that faction has no alternative candidate for the leadership. In fact were Major forced out, his obvious replacement would be Kenneth Clarke, who replaced Lamont as chancellor of the exchequer and whose centre-left views are even more repugnant than Major’s to Tory right-wingers. As a result Major most likely has at least another year to rebuild his popularity before he faces a challenge from within his party.
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