Britain's Major Is Stumbling Toward A Fall

In politics, it is often said, it is better to be lucky than clever. With Britain staring economic disaster in the face, and Prime Minister John Major's government drifting, the pundits appear to be right. Not only has Major's luck run out, but now it seems as though all his political cunning has waltzed away.

Major, like most other heads of state, is struggling to cope with a deepening recession largely beyond his control. But lately, his government has been on the ropes, and much of the damage is self-inflicted. Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont was widely discredited after Britain's ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Another top Cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, has lost a great deal of respect since he tried to sack two-thirds of the nation's miners in the midst of the longest recession in 50 years.

EATING HIS WORDS. Now, after a series of embarrassing policy flip-flops, Major's credibility is sapped. It couldn't come at a worse time. Soon, he will ask Parliament to approve the Maastricht Treaty on economic and monetary union, the centerpiece of his administration. But there are serious doubts that he will prevail.

Just six months ago, Major looked untouchable after his Conservative Party won a resounding reelection victory with a vision of a stable, low-inflation economy and closer ties to Europe. But with Britain's recession looking more and more like a depression, Major has been forced into retreat as one gloomy economic event after another overwhelms him.

First came the mid-September currency crisis, when the markets forced Major to eat his repeated pledges not to devalue or withdraw from the European Monetary System. Since Sept. 16, Lamont has raised and lowered interest rates five times, creating the impression that things are out of control. "This is serious," says Howard Davies, director of the Confederation of British Industry. "A lack of confidence in the direction of the economy lies at the heart of our difficulties."

But the ERM debacle pales next to the ham-handed way Major dealt with the coal mines, a dying industry but one dear to British hearts. The announcement that 31 coal mines and 30,000 miners would be lopped off came on the same day that new unemployment figures showed 40,000 workers had been laid off in the last month. Heseltine marshaled lots of economic reasons for closing the pits, but none could overcome the seeming heartlessness of the ruling. Some of the loudest cries of protest came from Tory backbenchers, whose threats to stand against Major in a House of Commons vote forced him into his second big reversal. Now, only 10 mines will be shut down, and then only after a 90-day review.

Major is still sending out confusing signals. After putting the British economy through the wringer in an effort to remain in the erm club, he has just presented an opposite plan to stimulate the economy through increased government spending on capital projects and job training. While business leaders and economists welcome the new plan, they are mystified by what they see as Whitehall's incoherence. "They don't know what they're doing," declares ubs Phillips & Drew economist Bill Martin.

With the usually supportive press abandoning him, the remaining four years in office are likely to be bumpy ones for Major. The rebellion in his Conservative Party means he is going to have to horse-trade to get anything done. Indeed, the whole nation is asking the question the tabloid paper The Sun recently screamed in a full-page headline: "Is Major A Goner?"

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