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Major's Government Nears Expiration Date

AFTER 17 years in power, Prime Minister John Major's Conservatives appear finally to be wearing out their welcome in the British government.

The opposition Labour Party has long predicted that the Conservatives would lose the next general election, but suddenly a majority of the Mr. Major's own supporters in the House of Commons are saying the same thing. And there is a swelling consensus among leading analysts that the government's days are numbered.

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"Our big problem is that we have been there for too long. People are fed up with the same old faces," Sir James Lester, a senior Conservative member of Parliament (MP), said Sunday.

Also, as in the United States, many Britons are anxious about the economy and keeping their jobs. Even though unemployment is relatively low at 7.9 percent, the government has been unable to translate such macroeconomic indicators into voter confidence.

A poll in the London Sunday Times showed that two-thirds of Conservative MPs believe the government will not win the general election due to be held by early May next year.

Many of the MPs polled by the paper doubted Major could hold on that long. "One feels the country is moving over," said Andrew Marr, an analyst of the Independent newspaper, of the drastic change in the political climate here.

"The mood of the country is not with the government," agreed Sir Patrick Cormack, another Conservative MP who is usually seen as a government loyalist.

The government sustained a stunning blow in a by-election April 11, when 22 percent of voters in Staffordshire swung from the Conservative to the Labour Party, bringing an overwhelming Labour victory.

The by-election outcome reduced Major's overall Commons majority to a single vote. This increases his vulnerability to an opposition vote of no confidence which, if successful, would bring a general election.

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Yesterday several British national newspapers reported that at least two Conservative MPs were considering resigning the party whip and switching to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Tony Blair added to Major's woes by traveling to Washington to meet with President Clinton and top administration officials.

He was treated "like a prime minister in waiting," said Peter Riddell, an influential political analyst who traveled to the United States with Mr. Blair. "Bill Clinton obviously likes and approves of Tony Blair."

Labour has traditionally been a party of the left. But Blair has successfully modernized its image, shedding its last links to socialism. Labour now occupies "the center ground of politics," he told business leaders in New York, and it had no intention of increasing taxes for the British middle classes.

"The Labour Party no longer arouses fear on anything like the scale it once did. The Tories no longer command respect. That combination is proving lethal for Conservative candidates," said Anthony King, professor of politics at Essex University.

Also, Major is having to contend with another threat: Sir James Goldsmith, a Paris-based billionaire financier, said April 14 that he would spend $30 million to field 600 parliamentary candidates opposed to Britain joining a single European currency.

Putting a brave face on the Staffordshire defeat, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine said Friday that there was "still time" for a "feel-good factor" to return before an election is called.

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