British Prime Minister John Major survived one of the biggest gambles of modern British politics Tuesday, winning re-election as party leader in a race he did not have to run.
Twelve days after he had resigned the job - defying his critics on the right to “put up or shut up” - Major defeated a former member of his Cabinet with the support of about two-thirds of his party’s members of the House of Commons. The result was respectable, if not glorious.
He will attempt to salvage his party’s standing in Britain with a Cabinet reshuffling today.
No one expected an outright defeat for Major. But he could have been weakened severely and forced out as prime minister had the total votes against him plus abstentions been heavier. Of the Conservative lawmakers eligible to vote, 218 went for Major and 89 for his challenger, John Redwood. There were eight abstentions, two uncast ballots and 14 “spoiled papers” in the secret balloting.
Redwood, who resigned a Cabinet post to run, congratulated Major. “He won fair and square under the rules, and I pay tribute to that victory,” he said.
While Major’s gambit highlighted the divisions within the party, with one-third of its lower house members in effect voting no confidence in him, it probably will pre-empt a potentially more serious challenge in the fall, the usual season for such battles in Britain. That was Major’s calculation when he quit as party leader on June 22 and that was his conclusion again Tuesday.
The vote puts “to rest any speculation about the leadership of the Conservative Party,” he said, “up to and beyond the next general election,” most likely in 1997. “This matter is now concluded.”
The issue underlying the Conservative Party’s internal strife is Britain’s role in the 15-nation European Union. A strong wing of the party, including several Cabinet members, believes that the integration of Europe - in matters of trade, law and commercial policy - is sapping Britain’s independence and identity. They consider London’s participation in the European Union’s planned common currency a threat to British sovereignty.
Although Major takes a moderate position between the pro- and anti-Europe factions, his refusal to rule out British participation greatly agitated the “Euro-skeptic” right.
Tuesday’s vote did not, however, silence Major’s critics, who begrudgingly acknowledged his victory.
“There’s no doubt that he’s won,” said Norman Tebbit, former Conservative Party chairman, “but it’s exposed the fact that a third of his party doesn’t support him.”