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In Britain, a Major lack of confidence

The Conservative Party has been in power in Britain for nearly 15 years now, and it is showing the inevitable signs of that long a hold on office: weariness, stumbling, public disaffection. Many feel about Prime Minister John Major and his government what Oliver Cromwell said to the Rump Parliament in 1653:

"You have sat here too long for any good you have done. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

In a poll last month, more than two-thirds of those asked said they were dissatisfied with Major. Only about 15 percent thought the government was doing a good job.

A particularly grim sign for Major is the contemptuous tone of pro-Conservative newspapers. The weightiest of Rupert Murdoch's, the Sunday Times, said this week that the Major government "singularly lacks the country's confidence."

What Major hoped would be a winning new political slogan, "Back to Basics," has become a public joke. It suggested a return to moral values, but over the last two months a series of Tory members of Parliament, some in the government, have been caught in sex scandals.

That may be regarded as bad luck. But the government has legislative troubles that are a matter not of luck but of ineptitude.

A tough-sounding crime bill should have been popular, since crime is a worrying issue here as in the United States. But it was drafted to centralize police powers in political hands, and that outraged the police. Key clauses were thrown out by the usually compliant House of Lords.

Conservatives pride themselves as being the low-tax party, but tax rates are now actually above the levels in the last Labor government. A further jump in April will have the average family paying $35 a week more than a year earlier: a savage increase.

The country is just inching its way painfully out of a long recession. Unemployment remains high. In the 15 years of Tory government, Britain has had the lowest economic growth of any of the industrialized countries.

Then there's foreign policy. Major and his foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, have been the leading opponents in Europe of intervention against Serbian aggression. A one-time Conservative minister of defense, Sir John Nott, published a bitter attack on the government's foreign policy in the Evening Standard the other day under the headline "The Weak Man of Europe."

With all the battering he has taken at home, Major must be grateful for the red-carpet treatment he is about to get from President Clinton on a visit to Washington. Tonight he will sleep in the White House: the first British prime minister to do so since Winston Churchill.

Some here see Clinton's gestures as a sign that the president now understands the value of the Anglo-American "special relationship." But that has long been in the category of myth. Clinton likely wants to soothe ill feeling over the recent grant of an American visa to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.

The political realties to which Major will return include a series of elections over the next few months: for local governments, for seats in the European Parliament and a by-election for a traditionally Conservative seat in the House of Commons. In all, the prospects are gloomy for the Tories.

The prime minister can nevertheless soldier on, and almost surely will. He won the last election against the odds, after the sudden party dumping of Margaret Thatcher and his choice as her successor, and friends say he has faith that he can do it again.

The Labor Party might do something silly enough to blight its long-awaited recovery. Labor and the third party, the Liberal Democrats, might get in each other's way. Major projects a personal decency and reasonableness. But still, time has its claims. A disaffected Conservative here said:

"The only thing that matters after all these years is a change of government. That applies anywhere in the world."

New York Times News Service

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