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Conservatives' Message: We Aren't `Stale'

At conference, British ruling party regroups

BRITAIN'S Conservatives have launched a two-year battle to turn back a political tide that appears to be running heavily in the opposition Labour Party's favor.

As they opened their annual conference Oct. 11, Prime Minister John Major urged his followers to try to recapture the middle ground of politics.

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But opinion polls and political analysts say the party that has held power continuously for 15 years will be fortunate to retain it at the general election expected in 1996 or 1997.

The most troublesome trend Mr. Major and his followers have to confront is a marked slump in Conservative support among Britain's middle class, many of whom regard the ruling party as having lost its grip on the nation's affairs.

A Gallup poll on the eve of the Tories' conference at Bournemouth, England, showed 69 percent answering yes to the question, ``Is the government tired and stale, and has it run out of steam?'' More than 70 percent, including a substantial minority of Conservatives, said the government was ``short-sighted.''

More than 60 percent regarded it as ``weak'' and ``dishonest.''

The poll also indicated that Labour has a 30-point lead over the Conservatives.

Respondents were questioned before Tony Blair, the new Labour leader, took his party's annual conference by storm a week earlier with a call to eliminate key socialist goals from Labour's constitution and to give it stronger appeal to middle-class voters.

Joe Rogaly, a leading political commentator, says the government has lost the initiative to the opposition on crime prevention and taxes - traditional areas of Conservative strength.

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``The Tories need a spell in the wilderness to examine their past and our future,'' Mr. Rogaly says.

Major told Conservative delegates at Bournemouth that Labour's promises to hold down taxes and adopt a tough law-and- order line were a sham, calling Mr. Blair a ``born-again socialist.''

The prime minister's attempts to pump confidence into his supporters were not helped by widespread claims that Mark Thatcher, son of the former Conservative prime minister, had earned 12- million pounds (then $15 million) as middleman in a British arms deal with Saudi Arabia signed by his mother when in office.

As Labour attacked ``Tory sleaze,'' Lady Thatcher issued an angry denial that her son had played a part in the 20-billion pound deal.

Jeremy Hanley, the Conservative Party chairman, told journalists that the charges might have to be examined by the Cabinet secretary.

Analysts say the Conservatives are suffering from a combination of factors which are eroding its support among the middle-class voters whose support they must have if they are to stay in office.

Rogaly notes that the government's decision to put up taxes early this year is widely seen as a failure by a party that has long promoted lower taxes. He says Blair's fresh and youthful image contrasts sharply with Major's plodding style.

Alan Duncan, a Conservative backbench member of Parliament, believes Blair is making an apparently successful pitch for the middle classes. ``He looks respectable,'' he says. ``People in my constituency tell me he looks like a winner.''

Such sentiments from his own supporters are putting Major under pressure to rekindle middle- class support for the Conservatives.

Responding to Blair's call for a massive drive to recruit new Labour Party members, the prime minister ordered Party Chairman Hanley to match it with a bid to sign up 100,000 young people into the Conservative party.

But even some of the Conservatives' long-term supporters in the media have begun to waver.

The right-wing Daily Telegraph complained Oct. 10 about ``the sleaze factor'' generated by payment of high salaries to the heads of newly privatized industries, and by charges that senior Conservatives have taken part in dubious share deals. ``It will not be easy for the Tories to wipe away the stains,'' the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial.

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