LONDON — It was former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson who coined the oft-quoted phrase: "A week is a long time in politics."
That adage proved true again for the British Labor Party, which has undergone a sudden reversal of fortune in a week that saw Margaret Thatcher resign under pressure as prime minister and her replacement by John Major.
The party, beaten by Thatcher in the last three general elections, was counting on running against a much-weakened version of its longtime nemesis next time--and not against a more popular Conservative Party leader such as Major.
That popularity was reflected by the latest public opinion polls, which show Labor suddenly running behind the Tories by about 11 percentage points. That compares with an edge of about 15 points that Labor had maintained over the Thatcher-led Conservatives for more than a year.
As a result of the switch at the top, the Conservatives now enjoy roughly the same position in the polls as they did going into the last general election, in 1987, when they thumped Labor 43% to 32%.
Thus, dumping the controversial Thatcher--however great the shock to her supporters--appears to have vastly improved the Tories' chances against Labor in the next election, which must be held within 18 months.
As Gordon Greig, political editor of the Daily Mail, described the Labor Party task: "They will now have to win the next election on merit, rather than allowing the Tories to lose it."
"There is no question but that Margaret Thatcher was seen as a strong election card for Labor," commented another political analyst. "They preferred her wounded but in the saddle. Now they are dealing with a new situation."
The selection of John Major, youthful and attractive at 47, has undercut another of the advantages that Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock appeared to enjoy in his quest to become Britain's next prime minister.
At 48, compared with Thatcher's 65, Kinnock's relative youth--as well as his energy in leading his party in new directions--had been seen by political observers here as an important electoral strength. That edge has obviously disappeared with Major replacing Thatcher.
Elected leader of the Labor Party in 1983, Kinnock has spent his time at the helm reforming the radical image of the party and breaking the iron grip of the trade unions over party policy and personnel.
Among other changes, he persuaded the party to abandon its stand in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament, which proved unpopular among British voters at large.
Despite his youth, Kinnock has become the longest-serving opposition leader in British history. Though he has spent 20 years in the House of Commons, he has never held a Cabinet office--he entered Parliament during a Tory sweep in 1970 and remained a backbencher during the Labor governments of 1974-79.
While remaking the party, Kinnock has also tried to modify his personal image from that of a rather windy, Welsh glad-hander, a typical "boyo" in an anorak, to that of a credible national leader, dressed more frequently in sober, double-breasted suits.
In the process, he has made himself the undisputed leader of a Labor Party often rent in the past by bitter intramural fights.
Under Kinnock, Labor has also managed to field a responsible team on the opposition front bench in the Commons--the "shadow Cabinet" that would take over the government if Labor wins a general election.
They include deputy leader Roy Hattersley, 57, long identified with the moderate wing of the party and a television talk-show veteran; Gerald Kaufman, 60, the shadow foreign secretary, and John Smith, 52, the highly regarded shadow chancellor.
Among other leading Labor would-be ministers are Gordon Brown, 39, shadow secretary for trade and industry; Tony Blair, 37, education, and Margaret Beckett, 47, treasury.
They are putting together a new manifesto, which will set out Labor policies calling for closer ties to the European Community and ensuring better health and education services--the very issues Labor had considered would be their trump cards in a race against Thatcher.
Labor is also leery of advocating handing back inordinate power to trade unions or a return to widespread public ownership if it were to win the next election.
The new, moderate leaders of the party recognize that Thatcher's bringing the trade unions in line was widely popular and that denationalization of some major industries has also met with general approval.
"Our only commitment to public ownership is in a number of major utilities like water, electricity and communications," said a party official.
And while Labor's policy statement calls for full recognition of trade-union rights, it does not advocate a stronger role for the unions than they play in most Western democracies.