Are The Tories Committing Suicide?

It's Dec. 31, 1998, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair dons his dinner jacket on his way to New Year's Eve festivities. But first he has an announcement to make to the press horde outside 10 Downing St. A dozen European countries are going to adopt a single European currency the next day, and Blair has reluctantly decided to throw in Britain's lot with them. To hang back would be to condemn the island nation to Europe's sidelines, he reasons.

This is the scenario that's giving Conservative members of Parliament nightmares. An outspoken few dread losing sovereignty to overbearing European bureaucrats in Brussels. Many others worry that they will never overcome Labor's 40% lead in the polls under Prime Minister John Major's uninspiring leadership.

Knowing that all the sniping, from Euroskeptics and others, was undermining him, Major decided to smoke out the dissidents by resigning on June 22 as party leader. The Tories will decide the bland ex-banker's fate on July 4.

Major's strategy was to show that the loud critics were just a small faction. But he may instead have hastened his own demise. That's because there are far more doubters of his leadership than there are Euroskeptics. So what was an irritating but minor matter of party disloyalty has thrown the country's leadership up for grabs. A Tory other than Major could emerge as the new party leader, and thus Prime Minister. Or the country could face a snap general election, which just might sweep in a Labor government.

Major's only declared challenger is former Cabinet member John Redwood, 44, part of a boisterous but small group of hard-line rightists whose high priestess is Margaret Thatcher. Redwood once ran Thatcher's policy unit at 10 Downing St., and he may be even more radical than his mentor. A "family values" politician with echoes of America's Christian Right, he opposes abortion and denigrates single mothers on welfare--issues Thatcher never touched. He's a fan of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But his anti-Europe views, including a vow never to join a single currency, place him more in the isolationist America First camp of Patrick J. Buchanan. "We must not be ashamed of being Conservatives," said Redwood at his press conference debut.

WISHY-WASHY. He has a point. While Major's centrist approach has up to now allowed him to preserve a working relationship with all but the most extreme anti-Europe MPs of his party, to Britain's voters he comes across as wishy-washy. "I certainly wouldn't vote Conservative with John Major in power," says consultant Daniel J. Day-Robinson, 35, as he rode the 7:30 p.m. train to his suburban south London home. "He has never taken a stand on anything."

While it is too soon to tell how the midsummer madness at Westminster is going to settle out, it doesn't look good for Major, future European cooperation, or even the British economy. London's markets, worried about a tax or interest rate cut to woo voters, have signaled their unhappiness by pushing down stock and bond prices and the value of the pound against the world's major currencies.

Redwood's chances of winning outright on July 4 are slim, but he has enough heft to draw away 80 to 100 of the 329 votes, either for himself or in abstention. That would probably be sufficiently humiliating to force Major to withdraw.

If Major, 52, is pushed out, others likely to jump in for the second round on July 11 include Trade and Industry Secretary Michael Heseltine, 62, and the Thatcherite and Euroskeptic Employment Secretary Michael D. Portillo, 42, who is better known. The two Michaels are certain to polarize the party between its left and right wings. In fact, just the possibility of a win by Europhile Heseltine is bringing some wayward sheep back to the Major fold. That means Major could win by default.

It would be a hollow victory. Voters are disgruntled with all the party infighting. And Labor's Blair is likely to be the biggest beneficiary.

Under fire, the harried Major is promising that the good times will return. At the recent European summit in Cannes, he told a camera-toting media scrum: "We're onstream to double living standards over the next 20 years." But voters, disgusted by a stream of scandals and policy reversals, are unlikely to be convinced.

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