Britain: Are Right Wingers Praying For A Tory Rout?

With Britain's next general election no more than five months away, the ruling Conservative Party is tearing itself apart over Britain's future role in Europe. The party's civil war is now so intense that Prime Minister John Major went on TV on Dec. 8 to warn so-called Euroskeptics--Tories who vehemently oppose yielding sovereignty to the European Union--that they are in danger of handing the election to the opposition Labor Party on a platter.

Trouble is, this may be exactly what some Euroskeptics want. Analysts figure that Major's right-wing rivals, such as former Cabinet members Norman Lamont and John Redwood, are already positioning themselves for a postelection battle for the party's soul. Edwina Currie, a pro-Europe former Health Minister, says that the Euroskeptics want to "do a Newt Gingrich on the party," snatching control from moderates, just as Gingrich did with the U.S. Republican Party.

"FAMILY VALUES." Keeping Europe at arm's length is just the start. Right-wingers also want to keep Britain out of the EU's planned single currency, promote big tax cuts, and "crusade" for deregulation and "family values" legislation such as bigger tax breaks for married couples. Redwood, who challenged Major for the party leadership in 1995, has already set up the Conservative 2000 Foundation, which boasts links to Gingrich, to spur such causes.

The risk is that the Tories' disarray is now so profound that it could put Labor and its leader, Tony Blair, 43, in office for more than one five-year term. Ironically, Tory ultraconservatives could benefit from a Labor win. Many have safe seats that will survive a Labor landslide. So a Tory rout could give them control of the party. "One wonders how much of this [Euroskepticism] is positioning for the postelection mantle of the Conservative Party," says Simon N. Braunholtz, political research director of the MORI polling organization.

The infighting is electoral poison for Major. For months, polls have flagged the end of the Tories' record 17-year postwar grip on power. Recent surveys put Labor's lead at 20% or more. Major, meanwhile, can't even count on once-stalwart backers such as Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper, a key to corralling blue-collar votes. Sun editor Stuart Higgins rates Blair as "different, exciting, and invigorating," and hints that the paper might endorse him.

BOOBY TRAP. Some Euroskeptics argue that Major can still win by pledging that Britain will shun European monetary union in 1999. That, they say, would sharply contrast with Labor's stance favoring the single currency and please an increasingly anti-Europe electorate. But it's a potential booby trap for Major because it would trigger the resignation of his pro-Europe allies, such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke. Besides, Major insists that he wants to keep his options open.

In Parliament, at least, his options are already shutting down fast. On Dec. 6, Major lost his absolute majority when Tory John Gorst announced that he would no longer obey the party's parliamentary leadership. In the coming months, Major risks being further weakened by more defections and by-election losses. But he could well hang on until May with the support of Northern Irish Ulster Unionist MPs who favor continued British rule.

Major's government may well expire with a whimper instead of a bang. But his expected defeat could herald an earthquake in British politics. It was, after all, the Tories' sojourn in the political wilderness in the 1970s that enabled Margaret Thatcher to seize control of the party and develop the radical free-market policies that kept it in power for nearly a generation. Now, Labor may get its chance to make a lasting mark.

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