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 are worried 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. "It's a fight for the party's soul," says Anthony King, a University of Essex political science professor.

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--exactly what Conservatives have been battling among themselves to head off in the first place.

Major's only declared challenger so far is former Cabinet member John Redwood, 44, part of a boisterous but small group of hardline rightists whose high priestess is Margaret Thatcher and a thorn in the Prime Minister's side since Major succeeded her. 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 U.S. conservative Patrick J. Buchanan. "We mustn't be ashamed of being Conservatives," said Redwood at his press conference debut.

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 voters he comes across as wishy-washy. "I certainly wouldn't vote Conservative with John Major in power," says 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." Day-Robinson, a consultant who helps countries in the former Soviet Union switch to market economies, thinks he might jump to Labor. He says that party is showing sounder judgment and leadership these days.

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. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd--the party's most articulate spokesman on Europe and widely viewed as the brains of the Cabinet--has already resigned to make room for a right-wing appointment. 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. Companies listed on the London Stock Exchange lost $19 billion in value on June 26 alone.

Still, Redwood's chances of winning outright on July 4 are slim. "He doesn't have a cat's chance in hell," says Richard Ottaway, a fellow Conservative MP and supporter of Europhile Michael Heseltine, Trade & Industry Secretary. But Redwood has enough heft to draw away 80 to 100 of the 329 votes, either for himself or in abstention. That would probably be humiliating enough to force Major to withdraw.

If Major, 52, is pushed out, others likely to jump in for the second round on July 11 include 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 Heseltine win is bringing some wayward sheep back to the Major fold. "We've got to be very careful," says right-winger James Cran. "If this thing gets out of control, we could get someone far more pro-Europe than I'd wish." That means Major could win by default.

"A JOKE." It might be a hollow victory. Voters are disgruntled with all the party infighting. And Labor's Blair is likely to be the biggest beneficiary. Karen Ward, a 26-year-old personnel training manager, says she'll be voting for Labor after watching the Conservatives' antics during the past week. "If [Major] can't hold the Cabinet together, how can he hold together Parliament and the rest of the country? He and the Conservative Party are a joke."

The Conservatives are also taking a beating for their brand of economic management. They've won the kind of steady, noninflationary growth that bond traders love, but at the expense of lower living standards for the average family. Taxes are up, real wages have barely risen in three years, and housing prices haven't recovered from recession, leaving many Tory voters paying off mortgages that are now higher than their homes' values.

Under fire, the harried Major is promising that the good times will finally return. At the recent European summit in Cannes, where he was hounded by camera-toting media scrum, he vowed: "A large number of the most difficult problems that faced us are behind us. 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.

The sniping among the Tories seems likely to continue no matter who is leader. The divisions in the party run deep, and 17 years is a long time to hold power in a democracy. The Tories are certainly acting as if they need a rest.

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