Britain: Thatcher's Time to Go

Facing a Tory revolt, Thatcher steps aside. Now her successor must attempt to match her considerable influence at home and abroad.

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History keeps its own peculiar rhythms, sometimes rewarding the lowly and punishing the mighty with a brutal speed that leaves spectators gasping. Once imprisoned playwrights suddenly become Presidents (witness Vaclav Havel); dictators suddenly become jailed pariahs (witness Erich Honecker, among others). And sometimes history conspires to undo a leader who had so completely embodied the spirit of the times that she seemed destined to govern forever.

In one of those harsh accelerations that have transformed Europe over the past 12 months, Margaret Thatcher stumbled -- and then was pushed from power by her own ruling Conservative Party leadership last week. What had still seemed a distant possibility suddenly telescoped into a historic event that caught even Thatcher by surprise. In telling her stunned Cabinet colleagues Thursday morning of her decision to resign as Prime Minister, Thatcher said with a touch of bitterness, "It is rather a funny old world that it has to come to this, when I had won three elections for the Conservative Party and still have the majority of the party's support . . ."

Even the funny old world's leaders were taken aback at the spectacle of a head of government being challenged, then brought down by her own party. When she arrived in Paris for the summit on European security on Sunday, Thatcher was a virtual institution, the doyenne of chiefs of state and the longest- serving British Prime Minister in more than 160 years. There were rumblings * of discontent within the ruling Conservative Party, but she was confident she could keep them muffled. Within three days, however, Thatcher rushed back to London bearing fatal political wounds inflicted in her absence by her party.

Furtive rebellion was in the air. Led by former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine, the anti-Thatcher movement was based less on sharp policy differences than on the growing conviction that the Prime Minister's continued leadership seemed certain to lose the Tories the next general election, which must be held before mid-1992. Opinion polls, giving Labour a 14-point lead, showed that Heseltine would do better than Thatcher as Tory standard bearer. Accordingly, in a first-round vote by the 372 Conservative Members of Parliament, Heseltine won 152 to Thatcher's 204; under the complicated leadership formula, that was just enough, with 16 abstentions, to force a second ballot and encourage opposition to the Prime Minister.

For the first time since she wrested the party leadership from Edward Heath 15 years ago, Thatcher was shown to be vulnerable. In Paris she had celebrated the end of the cold war and the start of "a new era of Europe." Returning to London, the Prime Minister was determined that her own era, in its 12th year, would not end quite so soon. She was not ready to write her memoirs, Thatcher said, vowing to "fight on. I fight to win." But this time the Prime Minister found her troops deserting all around her. In the end, Thatcher, who had once quipped to fainthearted Tories, "You can turn, if you wish. The lady is not for turning," had no choice but to make her last U-turn for the sake of party unity.

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