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London Press Lines Up Against a Faltering Prime Minister Major

EMBATTLED Prime Minister John Major received some fresh blows from Britain's Sunday newspapers, which said a majority of voters wanted him to step down:

* The Sunday Times commented that Mr. Major had proved himself incapable of mounting a credible strategy for a sustained recovery in his political fortunes, and he appeared to have a knack for making a bad situation worse. It said the battle for his successor as Conservative Party leader was already under way.

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* The Observer derided Major's ``weak and fumbling leadership,'' and said he was now seen as ``the man who would lose the party [in] the next general election.''

* The Sunday Telegraph published a Gallup poll showing that 65 percent of British voters wanted Major to step down, and 68 percent considered him to be ``politically inept.'' The poll, conducted March 31, said 31 percent of Conservative voters were among those wanting him to go.

A poll in the Sunday Times said a quarter of Conservative members of Parliament thought Major should quit, and 40 percent believed he would not lead them into the next general election, due by 1997.

Major went on the defensive after a week of criticism from within his own party. He tried Saturday to quash speculation that his job was on the line following a humiliating retreat over voting rights in an enlarged European Union. Parliamentary Conservatives routinely reelect their leader every year. This is usually a formality for a sitting prime minister, but the procedure was used in 1990 to oust Lady Margaret Thatcher.

The newspapers said Trade Secretary Michael Heseltine had emerged as the front-runner to succeed Major should there be a challenge, with a slight advantage over Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke. Both have said they would like to replace Major one day, although neither has openly challenged him.

A poll in the Sunday Independent suggested that, with Mr. Heseltine as leader, the Conservatives would win 30 percent of support from voters, compared to 26 percent under Major.

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