POLITICS : Britain’s Tories Riding High as Major Storms the Summit
British Prime Minister John Major, applauded at home for his performance in the European Community’s Treaty of Maastricht negotiations, has sharply boosted his Conservative Party’s chances in the next British general election.
By almost every assessment, Major has wiped out his old negative image: that of a political wimp and a footman to Margaret Thatcher, his predecessor as prime minister and a strong personality who was often seen to overshadow Major.
In the process, Major has strengthened his hand in directing the Conservatives toward his own moderate policies and away from the more doctrinaire “Thatcherism.”
During the talks this week in the Dutch city of Maastricht, Major agreed with his fellow European leaders on common political and economic goals. But he said Britain would let the others go their own way on the issues of worker rights and a common currency.
Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten emphasized what he called the prime minister’s success at Maastricht and his forceful, leading role at a complex international meeting.
And there is growing political speculation that Major might call a general election early in 1992, in an attempt to capitalize on his political gains at the summit.
More than 100 Tory members of Parliament enthusiastically approved Major’s strategy of putting Britain, as Major said, “at the heart of Europe,” without sacrificing the nation’s parliamentary independence.
The prime minister’s main pre-summit problem was not so much Britain’s relations with its 11 EC partners. It stemmed instead from the right-wing, anti-European members of Major’s own party, which faces a national election by next July.
In obtaining an agreement that canceled the word federalism as the objective of the EC political union, and by junking the section dealing with labor union rights, Major has undercut any far-right criticism from within his party. Even Thatcher has let it be known that she is satisfied with the results at Maastricht.
Major still faces strong criticism from the opposition Labor Party over the Maastricht treaty, with Labor leader Neil Kinnock accusing the government of leaving Britain “isolated” from the rest of Europe.
But Major could point to widespread European support for the new treaty, even though other national leaders were disappointed that Britain insisted on an “opt-out” clause on a common currency and forced the junking of a “social charter,” which would have set out broad guarantees of workers’ rights for all Europe.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand played down the concessions made to Britain and emphasized what had been accomplished at the meeting.
Regarding Major’s domestic political gains from the Netherlands conference, the Times of London put it this way:
“John Major’s limited anti-federalist dissent has left most Conservatives in a state of near euphoria. Ministers believe the party will unite behind Mr. Major and that the inevitable revolt will be confined to the die-hards.”
And this from the Daily Mail:
“After a year in which his personality has been constantly battered, with questions about his ability and clout, John Major is undisputed master of the Tory Party following his coup at the European summit in Maastricht.”