BRITAIN : Sex Scandals Contradict Tory Moralizing : Prime Minister John Major can't seem to plug all the leaks in his 'back to basics' policy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sex, that traditional despoiler of Conservative Party politicians, is creating yet more scandals threatening Prime Minister John Major's enfeebled government.

The running scandals involve sexual, political and financial peccadilloes among Tory politicians, which flatly contradict earnest, upright Major's new policy, dubbed "back to basics"--the British equivalent of the American "family values" campaign in which God, church and family are stressed.

The Tory Party has a long history of failed government ministers, enmeshed in scandals over extramarital sexual activities--the most infamous modern incident involving Defense Secretary John Profumo, who resigned from Harold Macmillan's Cabinet over his relationship with call girl Christine Keeler.

After him, Lords Lambton and Jellicoe quit as ministers when their high jinks with prostitutes were exposed. Then came Cecil Parkinson--Margaret Thatcher's handsome, married and favorite Cabinet secretary--who departed during a Conservative Party conference when it was revealed that he had fathered a child with his researcher.

Major--who had hoped to enjoy the political boost from an ailing economy that is turning upward and the Brussels NATO summit that has been deemed a success--has been seen as a model of rectitude; voters expected him to appoint only high-minded Cabinet members and junior ministers. He had sought to capitalize on his public image with a call for a return to "basic" values and standards.

But this plan quickly was unwound by David Mellor, the fun-loving minister who was sharing the bed of would-be actress Antonia de Sanchez. She told all to Britain's voracious tabloid press. Mellor resigned amid blazing headlines.

More recently, Tim Yeo--the engaging, well-liked environment minister and Tory in Parliament--was revealed by the tabs to have fathered a child with an unmarried, Conservative London City Council member. Yeo publicly had spoken out against single mothers.

The disclosure about his latest offspring was followed by the revelation that Yeo had a previous child born out of wedlock who was given up for adoption. This generated a feeding frenzy in the British press, whose salaciousness is exceeded only by its sanctimoniousness.

Yeo, reflecting Tory arrogance and unmindful of Major's call for a return to traditional values, refused to do the gentlemanly thing and go quietly. Instead, he proclaimed that his private life had nothing to do with his job. He insisted he would remain in office.

But this infuriated proper Tory women in his constituency, South Suffolk in East Anglia; he also became a whipping boy for the righteous editorialists of the tabs. So Yeo was ousted--but, in the view of Major's critics, much too late.

The floodgates then seemed to open:

* The newspapers recalled that Transport Minister Steven Norris was still in government, even though he admitted to five affairs that largely overlapped.

* Last weekend, the Countess of Caithness, wife of shipping minister Lord Caithness, committed suicide, because, her father said, her husband was involved with a divorced woman. Caithness resigned the next day.

* Then the longtime wife of David Ashby, a Tory member of Parliament, accused him of leaving her for a man, with whom he shared a hotel room in France recently during a "gastronomic holiday." Ashby, who is wealthy, said he shared a room and a bed with his friend to save money; he said he had done it many times before.

Two other, recent scandals have also mocked Major's moralizing:

* Alan Duncan, a Tory member of Parliament, ministerial assistant and a millionaire, lent money to a pensioner to buy a public apartment at reduced prices; this was part of a Tory policy meant to make ownership available to the underprivileged. But Duncan, it was revealed, then bought the cut-price unit from the purchaser. While no crime was involved, Duncan resigned as a ministerial assistant.

* Senior Tory officials in London have been accused of the "disgraceful" selling of public apartments in the Westminster borough--just before the 1990 local election--to Conservative buyers to secure a Tory vote in marginal wards.

For Major, the scandals have diverted attention from other parts of his "back to basics" program, such as sterner policies on education, crime and the economy. Instead, the public focus now seems to be on Tory morality.

The Labor opposition has criticized Conservative morality as "hypocrisy," and even Tory wags in the House of Commons refer to the "back to basics" program as "back to my place."

Tories in a Sexual Tango

Britain's Conservative Party has been buffeted by the fallout from its attempt to push a "back to basics" campaign. A seemingly innocuous phrase at first, it has come instead, to symbolize efforts by party hard-liners to preach about morality and "family values." That approach has backfired:

John Major, Prime minister

He's needed his sense of humor as criticism has mounted . . .

Lord Caithness, Former shipping minister

. . . about scandals, such as circumstances surrounding suicide of this key party leader's wife . . .

Tim Yeo, Former environment minister

. . . and this official's siring of children . . .

David Ashby, Conservative member of Parliament

. . . and this legislator's admission that he went on vacation with a male friend with whom he shared a bed.

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