Slick policy documents. Rising personal invective. It sure looks as if politicians are getting down to the serious business of an election campaign. Although Prime Minister John Major can delay a vote until July, 1992, odds are shortening for an October election. Some economists expect the recession gloom to start lifting by that time. Early skirmishes point to two key election issues: taxes and strengthening public services such as education and health.

For the first time since he replaced Margaret Thatcher, Major and his Conservative Party are trailing the Labor Party. He continues to be dogged by Thatcher policies such as health service reforms, which helped Labor win a former Tory seat in a May 16 by-election. Responding to Labor suggestions that the Tories intend to privatize the health service, Major accused the opposition of "lying." But a leading Tory concedes that Labor has been "very effective in attacking our weak flank." And the economy offers little cheer: Inflation dropped sharply to 6.4% in April, but the jobless rate is 7.6% and climbing, while business investment has dropped 20% over the past year.

Labor's new policy package pledges stepped-up spending of $40 billion over five years on health, education, and training. Major echoed Labor in his May 20 response by promising to overhaul Britain's class-ridden education system. He would increase the ratio of students going on to higher education to 33% within 10 years, up from 20% now, partly by revising the rigid testing system, and would boost the status of vocational training.

Major also plans to hit hard at Labor's plan to lift the top marginal tax rate to 59%, up from 40% at present. And the Tories have one surprisingly strong suit, especially if the economy perks up: Despite the prolonged recession, pollster Market & Opinion Research International finds that Britons still consider the Tories better custodians of the economy than Labor.

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