Major Expected to Return Britain to Cabinet Government
JOHN MAJOR, Britain's new prime minister, is promising to return the country to collective Cabinet government after 11 years of assertive high-profile rule by Margaret Thatcher. The early agenda of the 47-year-old politician, whose election on Tuesday ended a month of turmoil in the ruling party, is likely to be overshadowed by the crisis in the Gulf region, which, before he was chosen by 372 Conservative members of Parliament, he described as ``apparently heading toward a climax.''
But Mr. Major, who has been a Cabinet minister for only three years, must also hammer out a new policy toward Europe - the issue that precipitated Mrs. Thatcher's resignation - in time for next month's European intergovernmental summit in Rome.
And he is coming under heavy pressure from government supporters to dismantle the unpopular poll tax which, they say, could hurt the Conservatives in the next general election if nothing is done about it.
The opposition Labour Party is claiming that Major's election following a second ballot of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) has placed in 10 Downing Street, the prime ministerial residence, a ``Thatcher clone'' who will remain ``tainted'' by the former prime minister's policies.
Major's ministerial lineup was designed to end intra-party strife that erupted when Michael Heseltine, a former Cabinet minister, challenged Thatcher for the leadership and forced her resignation.
In Tuesday's second round of voting, Major gained 185 votes to Mr. Heseltine's 131. That was two short of the clear majority needed to win outright, but Heseltine, along with the third candidate, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, immediately withdrew from the contest, pledging support for the new leader.
Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative Party chairman, declared: ``At last we are all together again. We can now plan to fight the general election as a united party.''
Thatcher, who had endorsed the Major candidacy, said she was ``thrilled and delighted.''
Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, described Major as a ``Thatcherette'' who would be incapable of meeting demands for change.
In terms of political and economic ideology, Major can be compared with Jack Kemp, the head of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and a former Republican congressman. For the past year, he has been chancellor of the exchequer and has had to cope with rising inflation and a slowdown in the British economy.
As Major settled down to picking a Cabinet, his advisers said events in the Gulf were bound to loom large in the next few weeks. The Cabinet meeting at which Thatcher announced her resignation on Nov. 22 also approved a doubling of British forces in Saudi Arabia.
A new, fully-equipped British armored division will be ready for action in four or five weeks' time. It will be the second-most-powerful military contingent deployed in the Gulf against Iraq.
On Tuesday, a US State Department spokesman said: ``We know John Major and expect to work well with him. We don't expect any change in US-UK relations.''
In Major, Britain has gained a leader vastly different in style from Thatcher and whose background does not fit the image of a Conservative Party long dominated by patrician members of a ruling class.
Denis Healey, a senior Labour Party MP, said: ``The party of the estate owners has become the party of the estate agents.''
Major was born the son of a circus performer and lived his early years in Brixton, a faded London suburb. After leaving school at 16, he was unemployed for a time and is the first British prime minister to have lived on social security.
After being rejected as a bus conductor, allegedly because he could not count, he took a job in a bank. He was elected an MP in 1979, entered the Thatcher government in 1984, and became a Cabinet minister three years later.
At 47, he is the youngest prime minister this century. Mr. Kinnock is 48 and Paddy Ashdown, leader of the small Liberal Democrat center party, 49.
The fact that all three party leaders are under 50 years of age means that British politics are now dominated by a new generation of politicians.
Major's undertaking to restore Cabinet government is a response to widely canvassed complaints by leading Conservatives that Thatcher, after 15 years as party leader and 11 years as prime minister, had become too domineering and unwilling to listen.
David Mellor, a government minister who backed Major for the party leadership, described 10 Downing Street's new occupant as ``pragmatic, patient, and sharp,'' with ``an ingrained habit of listening to advice.''
Public opinion polls in the closing days of the leadership battle indicated that many Britons saw him as a better potential vote-winner in a general election than Heseltine.
In Brussels and other European capitals, governments are anxiously waiting to see what line Major adopts on a single European currency and central bank.
Under Thatcher, he took the view that the Delors plan for economic and monetary union was too rigid. He favored a more evolutionary approach and advocated a ``hard Ecu'' - a common European currency that could run parallel with other currencies.
Government officials yesterday indicated that, on European issues, Major could be expected to adopt a less shrill tone than Thatcher and would be more ready to search for compromise solutions.