How Long Can John Major Be Britain's Dr. Feelgood?

Mild-mannered, high school-educated John Major bears little resemblance to gruff aristocrat Winston Churchill. Yet overwhelming public support for Britain's tough stand alongside the U. S. in the Persian Gulf has pushed the Prime Minister's popularity to levels rivaling Churchill's in World War II. Nearly 100 days after Major succeeded his political mentor, Margaret Thatcher, his shrewd political touch and unflappable style have won him esteem at home and abroad--in stark contrast to the political and diplomatic tensions Thatcher stirred in her final days. Major's Conservative Party, helped by his personal standing, has moved 7 points ahead of the Labor Party in polls after trailing by 21 points in November.

As in the U. S., patriotic stirrings in Britain over the war are temporarily masking the nation's deep economic and social problems. And many politicians on the Continent still suspect that Britain's first allegiance is to the U. S., not Europe. Yet while lacking Thatcher's ideological fervor, Major is starting to map his own agenda. Observers note a significant policy shift in his emphasis on improving public services and his warmer embrace of European unity. Thatcher was frequently hostile to both. Although Major, like Thatcher, sees limits to European economic and political unity, he says that he wants Britain to be an "enthusiastic" partner. That is winning the respect of key players such as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose government is contributing $550 million toward Britain's costs in the gulf.

Still, the war shows how tough it will be to balance Britain's ties with the U. S. and Europe. The chaotic European response in the crisis, Major argues, illustrates the dim prospects for unifying Europe's defense and foreign policy. To bridge the gap, he is proposing greater authority for the European Community and the Western European Union--the dormant European military organization--on issues such as arms control and defense problems outside NATO.

At home, Major is scoring big with his common touch, such as his personal intervention to waive a rule that delayed cold-weather payments to pensioners. "British people regard him as `one of us,' as Maggie never was," says Tory Member of Parliament Sir Hal Miller. The Tories may try to capitalize on rising party popularity by calling a quick general election after the gulf war ends. But timing is complicated by the current recession, which isn't expected to ease until late summer, and still-rising unemployment.

While Major has played a deft hand so far, bigger political tests--and sharper departures from Thatcher's domestic policies--are still to come. The approach of local elections in May will put Major under enormous pressure to revise Thatcher's regressive poll tax, which hits the poor as hard as the affluent. He is likely to do so by returning to a property-based tax. And in the Mar. 19 budget, after four years of surpluses, his government is expected to provide for renewed borrowing to channel extra money into education and health. Speaking to young Tories recently, Major put education "at the top of my agenda" and criticized schools' performance for the past 30 years.

MISSING MAP. On such issues, Major hopes to steal Labor's thunder. As a politician who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps, he talks of building a "classless society." Tory MP John Biffen, a former House of Commons leader, calls Major a "bloody good" politician but says "we need something more than that." He warns: "There isn't the strategy that was there in Thatcher's halcyon days."

To sustain his fast start, if Biffen is right, Major will have to come up with a clearer road map to the better society he envisions. And he still needs to convince voters, for the fourth election in a row, that the Tories are a party of constructive change.