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Conservatives most likely will be booted out of power

Tony Blair, the man likely to be Britain's next prime minister, is a country lad who likes nothing better than tramping across the moors.

Or maybe he's a working-class bloke who spends evenings watching football on the telly.

Or maybe he's an egghead who holes up in his library with Jung, Kant and Kierkegaard.

Depending on whether you read Britain's Country Life magazine, the tabloid Sun or the slightly more intellectual Telegraph, those are the images Blair has fostered as he tries to put his Labor Party back in power.

In reality, the 43-year-old Blair is a shrewd, attractive politician who is married to a bright, ambitious lawyer. If that sounds like a certain U.S. president who seems to be all things to all people, you're a long way toward understanding why the most important issue facing Britain today _ its role in Europe _ is apt to remain unsettled even if Blair moves into No. 10 Downing St.

To many, Britain is facing a crisis of leadership that even American-style packaging can't disguise.

On Monday, the current prime minister, John Major, set May 1 as the date for the national elections. After 18 years in power, even the Conservatives would be surprised if they won. Polls show that most Britons view the party as out of touch and the 53-year-old Major as a cold fish lacking in backbone.

At the same time, they don't quite trust Blair _ "He smiles with his mouth and never his eyes," one voter said _ but they are looking for change, even if no one is sure exactly what it would be.

It's an amazing fall for the Conservatives, who have led Britain through two decades of radical changes that in many ways have strengthened it.

It was in 1979 _ the year the shah fled Iran _ that the Conservatives won a majority in Parliament and formed a new government. Their leader, Margaret Thatcher, became Europe's first woman prime minister, pledging to cut personal income taxes, restrain the trade unions and sharply reduce the role of government in everyday life.

"Free choice," she was fond of saying, "is ultimately what life is about."

But attempts to shove more of the tax burden onto local governments caused violent protests throughout England and Wales in 1990. That, combined with Thatcher's increasingly autocratic style _ some thought she had just gone crazy _ forced her to step down. Her successor was John Major, a high school drop-out who had worked his way up in party ranks as a Thatcher loyalist.

Conservatives narrowly won the 1992 elections and continued the so-called "Thatcher revolution." To date it has resulted in privatization not just of utilities like gas, water and electricity, but also flagship industries like Rolls Royce and British Airways.

Britain now has the lowest unemployment rate of any major European country. Thanks largely to its membership in the 15-nation European Union, it enjoys robust trade with other union members.

Still, Labor has plenty of campaign fodder.

While Major's own reputation is impeccable, his government has been beset by political and personal scandals. The National Health Service, long the gem of Britain's welfare state, is so strained that patients have to wait months for surgery. One newly private railroad had to rebate millions of dollars to its passengers last month to compensate for lousy service.

Most significantly, the Conservatives have been unable to set a clear direction on the most complicated issue of the day _ whether Britain will be one of the European nations adopting a single currency called the euro starting Jan. 1, 1999.

Major's position has been wishy-washy at best. While he's in favor of Britain playing a major role in Europe he won't say whether Britain should scrap the pound and adopt the euro in the first wave of nations.

Blair, for his part, has done such a masterful job of moving his party to the center _ much like his role model Bill Clinton has done in the States _ that it's getting hard to distinguish between Labor and Conservatives. Like his opponents, Blair promises to hold a referendum on the single currency. Beyond that there has been virtually no substantive discussion on the merits of adopting the euro _ or ignoring it.

British voters are confused by the issue, polls show. They want their leaders to tell them what to do.

The problem may be that Major and Blair simply don't know. One reason Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan got along so famously is that both had clear, uncompromising visions of what their nations should be. Like George Bush, Major and his challenger appear to be decent men who understand the mechanics of politics but are not quite sure what to do with the power.

The Conservatives' one faint hope for resurrection is that the voters still see them as better able to manage the economy. Labor retains an image _ though a weakening one _ as the party that would raise taxes, bring labor unrest and scare off foreign investment.

But if you're a Conservative in Britain these days, all those tulips and crocuses blooming in springtime splendor are apt to seem like flowers on a freshly dug grave.