Major Fighting Uphill

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LONDON: Trailing by as much as 20 points in polls as Britain's May 1 elections near, Prime Minister John Major is moving to sharpen his differences with Labour opponent Tony Blair. "There are two elements to this," says London Bureau chief Barry Hillenbrand. One is that Major is faced with a quite extraordinary situation of facing a fight not only against Labour but within his own party over the European Union. Voters do not like party disunity, since in Britain, if the party does not cooperate, the government falls apart and new elections have to be held." To secure cooperation, Major has taken the rare step of telling party members that they can vote their own judgment rather than follow the party line on the divisive issue of whether Britain joins the European Union's single currency. He has fastened on the EU question since Labour has co-opted Conservative themes on most other big issues. "The things British voters are concerned about most are health, education, law and order, and unemployment," notes Hillenbrand. "Somewhere further down on that list is their relationship to Europe. This is Major's attempt to put some clear blue water, some distance between the two campaigns. But Blair says there's no difference on their policy toward the EU, and he's right." Just as President Bush did in his 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton, the Tories have tried to stress the importance of Major's experience in dealing with foreign heads of state. "Chancellor Kohl and President Chirac are far too astute and experienced," Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind argued Friday. "They would eat Mr. Blair for breakfast and digest him for lunch." So far, the voters don't agree.