PRIME Minister John Major's government is in acute disarray
after nearly a month of political scandals, Cabinet infighting, and
claims that Britain's leader has lost credibility.
There is open talk among Conservative Party supporters in London
and the English countryside of an early leadership challenge to Mr.
Major if he does not speedily reassert his authority.
At the heart of the crisis is bitter disagreement among Tories
about Major's "back-to-basics" policy centering on family values
and ethics in government. This clean image has come under fire in
past weeks as two government ministers were forced to resign amid
charges of sexual impropriety.
On Jan. 16, the man who took over from Margaret (now Lady)
Thatcher in December 1990 became embroiled in a public argument
with two mass-circulation newspapers that normally support
The Daily Mail and the Sun both reported that at a private
dinner party Major had sworn to "crucify" three right-wing
Cabinet ministers who, he is said to have claimed, had tried to
hijack the back-to-basics policy for their own ideological ends.
Officials at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's London
residence, denied the reports and accused the two papers and other
sections of the media of attempting to "wage a campaign to
destabilize the government" and "precipitate a general
Major launched the back-to-basics policy last October in an
attempt to heal Conservative Party wounds opened up by a
long-running dispute about the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.
The prime minister tried to put the focus on family cohesion,
better education, law and order, effective health care, and more
But three senior Cabinet members decided to interpret the policy
narrowly, arguing for greater personal morality and complaining
that too much government money was being spent to support unmarried
mothers. This reopened the wounds, and Major's failure to end the
resulting squabbling has led to charges that he is weak and
The back-to-basics policy became a topic of fervent public
debate early in January when one government minister was forced to
resign after disclosures that he had fathered a child outside
marriage, and another quit the government when his wife committed
suicide. It has since been widely reported that before his wife's
death the minister had been having an affair with another woman.
Major attempted to quell the resulting public uproar by arguing
that the back-to-basics policy did not have much to do with "silly
indiscretions" by ministers. Within a day or two, Conservative
members of Parliament began getting huge numbers of letters from
voters arguing that private morality and the behavior of elected
officials are linked. …