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Britain's Protest Vote

LOCAL elections May 5 in Britain have sent a sobering message to the Conservative government and further darkened John Major's political future.

The prime minister has taken personal blame for one of the worst-ever political defeats for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives, who had held 1,317 seats on local councils, lost a third of them, 429 to be exact. The Labour Party rang up 42 percent of the votes, while the Tories were embarrassed by tying with the Liberal Democrats, the perpetual No. 3 party, with 27 percent apiece.

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The Conservative government, which needn't call a parliamentary election until 1997, has ample time to recover. Mr. Major may not. Voting for seats in the European Parliament takes place June 9. Conservatives, who hold 32 of Britain's seats in that body, may lose half or more of them if the mood of angry British voters doesn't lift before then. A disastrous Tory showing could embolden Major's opponents within the party to move against him this summer.

The May 5 vote seemed less about local issues and more about registering a protest against a tired Conservative government: more specifically, a dissatisfaction with a still somnolent economy. And some voters just seemed to want to remind Major that he's ``no Maggie Thatcher.''

If Major is removed during the party's scheduled leadership contest in November, he will have served for about four years as Mrs. Thatcher's successor. George Bush served four years after American conservative icon Ronald Reagan, failed to emerge from his shadow, and was done in by a weak economy - not a comforting precedent for Major.

Coincidentally, the opening of the channel tunnel took place the day following the council voting. This engineering marvel, a literal opening up to Europe, came about despite a Tory party deeply divided over Britain's role in a united Europe.

If Major falls, he can blame the economy and wistful Thatcherites. But, Major or no, Britain's search for a post-tunnel identity must go on.

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