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Tories Clinging to Power in Razor-Close British Vote

By Glenn Frankel
The Washington Post

LONDON

Prime Minister John Major's ruling Conservatives were defying expert predictions and clinging to power early Friday morning in Britain's tightest general election in a generation.

Returns in 232 of the country's 651 districts showed the Tories holding onto many of the voters they had won over during the 1980s despite a bruising election campaign. British Broadcasting Corp. television projected that Major's party would be three seats over the 326 it needs for an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

If the forecast holds it would be a remarkable comeback for Major's party, which was managing to overcome the stigma of presiding over Britain's longest economic recession in 50 years. It had trailed Neil Kinnock's opposition Labor Party in most opinion polls and appeared to be headed toward a narrow defeat.

At best Labor was hoping that enough marginal Conservative seats would fall to deny the Tories an overall majority and plunge the House of Commons into political stalemate. But the results in many districts were too close for analysts to make a firm prediction.

"I think this election is going to come down to a few hundred votes in a half dozen constituencies -- it's that close," said BBC-TV analyst Peter Kellner.

Either way, the final result is certain to lower a final curtain on an era of dominant, one-party Conservative rule under Margaret Thatcher and Major, her successor, and mark the opening of a period of uncertainty, ambiguity and coalition politics.

If the Tories fall short of a firm majority, the result would be a "hung Parliament" in which both large parties would have to scramble for support among a half dozen minor parties to put together enough votes to hold power.

Analysts said Labor would hold a natural advantage in such a scramble because its policies are closer to those of most of minority parties.

If the current projections hold up, the Conservatives would have lost somewhere between 25 and 40 seats from their present total of 369, while Labor will have gained a similar number. The shift would give Labor limited momentum in the bruising political combat that is likely to ensue if the Tories win a narrow majority.

With the results still in the balance, both sides sounded optimistic. "We said it consistently -- people were not going to vote for Neil Kinnock and tax increases," said Michael Heseltine, a senior Tory cabinet minister who played a key role in the campaign.

"It appears they have lost the moral right to remain the government," said Jack Cunningham, Labor's campaign coordinator. "The Tories are losing one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in a single election ... . That is a huge success for Labor by any test."

During the last general election five years ago, the Conservatives under Thatcher won 42.3 percent of the vote and a 101-seat majority in the House of Commons. Labor won 32 percent and the third-party Alliance, now replaced by the Liberal Democrats, 23 percent.

Thursday's bright and warm weather and the close contest brought out nearly 80 percent of Britain's 36 million voters, a higher than usual poll, suggesting both parties had gotten their core voters to the ballot box.

After 13 years of Tory rule, it was a watershed election, one that mirrored some of the same discontent and national tensions that marked recent contests in France, Germany and Italy.

Voters here were angered by the 18-month recession, 9 percent unemployment and the government's alleged neglect of the country's revered system of socialized medicine. Many were also in a vengeful mood for the government's sponsorship, under Thatcher, of the highly unpopular "poll tax" system of local revenue collection.

Labor hammered away at these issues with a lively and carefully focused campaign that sought to make the election a referendum on Tory rule. Its slogan, "It's Time for a Change," found resonance in many areas suffering economic hardship. Kinnock, 50, a career politician who had transformed Labor from a decaying, left-wing movement captured by special interests into a disciplined, mainstream political force, confounded critics with his cool and cautious campaign style.

The Conservative campaign, which at first seemed lackluster and negative, concentrated on the "Nightmare on Downing Street" of higher taxes and a return to socialism that it said would result from a Labor victory. It also relied heavily on promoting Major, 49, who had much higher personal popular ratings than Kinnock but had never before been a national candidate. Major often seemed bland and tentative, groping to find a style that would ignite voters.