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John Major's Rule Brought To Brink Over Arms to Iraq

BRITISH Prime Minister John Major's grip on power is again under threat - this time from a groundswell of public and parliamentary concern over his government's alleged lack of moral integrity.

The row is showing signs of escalating into a full-scale national debate about the Major administration's ethical standards and attempts by ministers and government officials to prevent Parliament from learning the truth about conduct of policy.

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As the London Times, in a scathing editorial yesterday, asked whether the British leader's nickname of ''Honest John'' was still relevant, an opinion poll on Sunday showed that two-thirds of voters are calling for at least two of his senior ministers to resign for having allegedly misled Parliament.

In the House of Commons, Major faces a Conservative backbench rebellion next Monday, which analysts say endangers his already wafer-thin majority.

Leading commentators have suggested that the government's conduct of policy in recent years - particularly over arms sales in the Middle East - has been marred by excessive secrecy and persistent failure to tell the truth to the British public. Sir Richard Scott's three-year inquiry led him to conclude that the government had secretly eased its own guidelines on arms sales to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Scott also heavily criticized the government's apparent readiness to let a group of arms manufacturers, who had made military equipment for Iraq, go to jail rather than admit that the businessmen were only adhering to the covertly changed guidelines.

Three days later, a National Opinion Poll reflected widespread public anger both at revelations about the arms-sales policy and Major's tactics in preventing opponents and Conservative backbenchers alike from seeing the report until the last moment.

The poll showed that by a majority of nearly four to one, voters want cabinet ministers William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell to resign because of their part in pursuing arms policy.

THE sudden upsurge in questioning the government's moral standards could hardly come at a worse time for Major. Since Northern Ireland's cease-fire was shattered in a Feb. 9 bomb blast in London's financial district by the Irish Republican Army, the terrorists have struck two more times. The latest was a bomb blast Sunday aboard a double-decker bus in London.

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By yesterday, two Conservative backbenchers indicated that they had doubts about backing Major's government over the Scott report. Perhaps crucially, David Trimble, leader of the official Ulster Unionist Party, called the report ''damning'' and said Major could not ''take for granted'' the support of his party's nine House of Commons members. With Major's majority already down to three, the defection of only a handful of Conservative backbenchers, or a failure of Trimble's group to support the government, would ensure a humiliating Commons defeat.

More significant from a national standpoint is the widespread public concern that the Scott findings, and the government's response to them, have revealed. Political analyst Peter Riddell says the real issue is not whether the Major administration survives, but the current rules on what government ministers should be required to tell the House of Commons.

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