British Prime Minister Abandons Thatcher's Combative Tone
AFTER only two weeks in office, John Major, Margaret Thatcher's successor as prime minister, has brought the British political temperature down several degrees. ``Confrontation is no longer the watchword,'' a Conservative Party central office source said. ``Under John, we are moving into a period of calm consideration of all issues.''
Within the party, the source continued, the prime minister was concentrating on healing the wounds of the leadership battle. Outside it, stridency no longer had a place in the conduct of government.
The new mood engendered by Mr. Major, who entered 10 Downing Street after a fierce contest in which Mrs. Thatcher was forced to withdraw after the first ballot, is reflected in both foreign and domestic matters.
Mr. Major was heading for the Rome summit of European Community leaders later this week determined to end Britain's isolation on economic and monetary union and to ensure that his country is not left behind by Germany and France in their pursuit of political integration.
Instead of going to Rome to seek a victory, Major told Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) last week, he would be ``in there arguing and persuading.'' The contrast with Thatcher's combative approach could hardly have been greater. In addition, at Major's insistence, Britain took a deliberately hawkish, pro-EC line against United States demands for more European concessions at last week's negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Brussels. In an apparent attempt to impress EC governments with Britain's desire for a united European front, John Gummer, the agriculture minister, and Peter Lilley, the trade secretary, complained about American ``megaphone diplomacy.''
Afterward, the tough British approach was warmly praised by Renato Ruggiero, the Italian trade minister. ``The Community was very united, even the UK delegation,'' he said.
Major's influence has been even more evident at home. In a Cabinet reshuffle, he appointed Michael Heseltine, his chief opponent for the leadership, to the key post of environment secretary, giving him a mandate to perform a drastic overhaul of the poll tax.
Mr. Heseltine's first move as he set about dismantling the measure that earned the Thatcher government such widespread unpopularity was to invite the opposition Labour Party to consult with him on ways of changing it.
Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, initially rejected the offer, then toned his language down as it became apparent that the Major-Heseltine olive branch approach was being welcomed by a large chunk of the electorate.
The Conservatives under Major are about 10 points ahead of Labour in the latest opinion polls. In Thatcher's last days in office, her party was trailing the opposition by as much as 20 points.
To stem party infighting over the leadership contest, Major sent a message to ``all Conservatives,'' from the constituencies to the Cabinet room: ``There must be no backbiting, no recriminations, no post-mortems. There is too much at stake. We have a general election to win.''
In his first speech after being elected Conservative Party leader, Major said he would fight to make Britain ``a caring, classless society of opportunity,'' with merit the key to advancement. Within a week, he had to meet head-on a challenge to this standpoint from within his own party.
Conservatives at Cheltenham, a genteel middle-class town where retired colonels are much to the fore in local politics, selected John Taylor, a black barrister, as their parliamentary candidate for the next general election. This prompted bitter complaints from members of the local party, one of whom used a racial epithet in complaining about the choice of Mr. Taylor to represent them.
The term was used by Bill Galbraith, a cousin of Lord Strathclyde, a junior minister in the Major government. Mr. Galbraith said later: ``A black man is not for us. Taylor has been foisted on us by central office.''
Major immediately issued a statement condemning the language and reminding Galbraith and his supporters that their views had no place in the kind of Britain he was elected to lead.
A feature of Thatcher's 11 years in office had been her confrontational style. This led her into open clashes with European heads of government and, in the end, drew support away from her within her own Cabinet.
Major has a friendlier, more accommodating approach. Addressing a group of Conservative MPs and candidates, he promised a ``listening'' style of government.
``We offer no sudden solutions or miracle cures,'' he said. ``Where we find things are not quite right, we will make the changes that are necessary.''
A former government minister who heard the speech said: ``The style is entirely different from Margaret's.''
There were signs last week that the style was not entirely to the opposition Labour Party's liking.
Newspaper reports quoted Labour Party sources as comparing Neil Kinnock's leadership unfavorably with that of the new prime minister. The reports drew a sharp rejoinder from Jack Cunningham, a senior spokesman in charge of Labour's general election planning. ``Rubbish, completely ridiculous,'' he said.
A further sign of the success Major's softly-softly approach was having came last weekend when close friends of David Owen, leader of the now-disbanded Social Democratic Party, quoted him as saying that in the next general election he would throw his support behind Major and the Conservatives. Dr. Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary, commands respect in the center ground of British politics.
If he comes out openly in support of the Major government it will be a blow to Kinnock in marginal constituencies. It may also help to persuade Conservative voters who had ceased to admire the Thatcher style that the party under its new management is worthy of their support.