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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : John Major : Even Under Fire, Britains's Prime Minister Holds His Own

June 20, 1993|THOMAS PLATE and WILLIAM TUOHY | Thomas Plate is editor of the editorial pages for The Times. William Tuohy is London bureau chief for The Times

LONDON — A number of hurdles await the visitor to No. 10 Downing Street--as the official residence of Britain's prime minister is known. But most noticeable is the elaborate succession of security checkpoints, tighter than ever in the wake of increased terrorism by the Irish Republican Army. Once approved by security, the visitor is ushered into a large entrance hall, up a snake's trail of seemingly endless narrow stairs and through panel after panel of doors to a special room where the interview with Prime Minister John Major is to take place.

This is the White Drawing Room. It overlooks the Downing Street Garden, where, some two years ago, the IRA lobbed a home-made mortar bomb that narrowly missed the prime minister as he conducted a Cabinet meeting. Major was not injured in the attack--indeed, press reports of his extraordinary cool under fire greatly enhanced his public image. But now Major is under new attack--from right-wing members of his own Conservative Party who seem equally determined to get him.

The prime minister entered the room with his press secretary not far behind. Shaking hands warmly and smiling, Major settled into a stiff-backed chair with green brocade upholstery framed in gold gilt. Overhead, a chandelier glittered.

In person, Major appears more animated than TV viewers have become accustomed to. He speaks with precision and passion and, at one point, when he asked to go off the record to answer a delicate question as to whether the Tories weren't embarked on a self-destructive course, gave a lie to his media image as a wimp. But his image obviously doesn't come across well: In a recent opinion poll, only 16% said they were satisfied with his performance.

In fact, the earlier part of the prime minister's week had been poisoned by a savage personal attack of a former Cabinet minister--and by widespread press reports of a possible dump-Major movement in his own party. This public bloodletting was all the more remarkable because, just 14 months ago, the Tories celebrated a come-from-behind victory over the Labor Party that kept them in power--in large part due to Major. But, on Monday, Lady Thatcher, his predecessor, threw cold water on the whole dump-Major idea and an impenetrable ambiguity settled over the situation with the density of London fog. For the time being, anyway.


Question: Isn't the special relationship between the United States and Britain a little tattered right now?

Answer: No, . . . I do not think there is any growing apart in the instinctive way that the British and Americans both look at world problems and the extent of their communal self-interest . . . .

I do not, myself, ever use the term "special relationship." I do think there is a natural alliance of interests between the United Kingdom and the United States, and I think that remains, and I think that is going to remain in the future.

That does not mean that on each and every issue we will take precisely the same view. And that has not been the case in the past, it was not the case in the Reagan/Thatcher years, it was not the case in earlier years. There have often been shades of different opinion. But the broad perspective that we both have upon the world is remarkably similar, the way in which we approach problems is remarkably similar, the outcome that we want in international problems is almost invariably similar . . . .

Ask yourself the fundamental question: If the United States, in difficulty, wanted to look round for someone who would be likely to line up on their side of their fence, where would they look? And ask the question of the British: If they wanted to look around the world to find someone who would be likely to line up on their side, where would they look? Push aside the froth and bubble and answer that question and then we can get on with serious matters.

Q: And no logical tension between the wish to be more a part of Europe as against the U.S.-Britain alliance?

A: It is often felt that we cannot be at the heart of Europe and retain a special relationship with the United States. If I may say so, I think the argument is precisely the reverse of that: It actually enhances the relationship we have with the United States if we are in a position to influence all our European partners. I think the argument needs to be viewed though that end of the telescope.

It is not a question of choosing one against the other, it is not a competition where you have to line up on one team or on another team . . . . I do not think we have to choose--and I have no intention of choosing between the United States and our European partners.

Q: Do you have any feelings of sympathy for President Clinton and for the battering he is taking?

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