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World: They’re Off

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Only six weeks ago, most British politicians believed that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government would not dare call a general election before spring 1964. But in Westminster last week M.P.s were wagering that the Tories would go to the people this fall. Labor Party leaders even claimed to know the date: Oct. 24, about the last possible Thursday (Britain’s traditional polling day) before the end of campaigning season.

Reason for the shift in thinking was the good economic news for the government that came with spring’s thaw after the worst winter of the century. Suddenly came word of new export records, booming retail sales and swelling company profits. Most welcome news of all last week was that the remorseless five-month rise in unemployment had finally drifted down to 604,000, off nearly 100,000 from the March figure.

Promises & Threats. The Tories still faced a long, hazardous haul. Politically and economically, the biggest roadblock is that industry will not be able to expand and compete in world markets without vigorous, unpopular measures to hold wage boosts to half their rate of increase over the past decade. On the bright side, economists now believe that, by fall, Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling’s canny budget (TIME, April 12) will have boosted production, whittled unemployment and put extra spending money in lower-income pockets. In fact, many Tory M.P.s now fear that if the government waits until next year before calling the election, it may lose its gains in another winter slump and have even less time for recovery before its five-year mandate expires in October 1964.

In any case, the campaign is already under way. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan threw a straw in the wind by re-appointing hardheaded Lord Poole as co-chairman of the party with Leader of the House Iain Macleod. Poole, who raised record sums for the Tories in the 1955 and 1959 campaigns, is the reputed author of the “Never-Had-It-So-Good” theme that helped return the government at the last election.

Grey Utopia. Last weekend, with Poole and 32 other top Tories who were summoned to the Prime Minister’s country home, Macmillan started drafting the party’s broad, long-term program of social and economic reform. Its theme, said Macmillan, will be “Modernize—not Nationalize.” In his fiercest attack on Labor in many months, the Prime Minister charged in a speech to Glasgow Tories that “the Socialists have nothing to offer except old threats supported by sly promises.” The Opposition, declared Macmillan, still clings to its “old-hat” view of a socialist utopia, in which “everybody is more or less the same shade of grey.” He insisted that under Labor, Britain would revert swiftly to the status of a “second-class power.”

Macmillan’s final decision on the election date will be influenced by the Gallup poll percentages, which in April showed a fractional slip in Labor’s massive lead, now 49.5% to 34%, over the Tories. Other omens will be the results of three spring by-elections necessitated by the deaths of Hugh Gaitskell and two other Labor M.P.s.

One thing was certain: at 69, Harold Macmillan is still confident that the party cannot yet dispense with his leadership. By way of patching party morale, he has already quashed back-bench rumors that he might step down. “I’ll be leading you into the next general election,” he told Tory M.P.s recently, “and I’ll be with you in the new Parliament.”

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