London — Creation of a new center party in British politics is now a virtual certainty , and the belief is building fast that it will be led by a woman -- Shirley Williams.
Mrs. Williams is one of the most popular figures in British politics. Commenting on her resignation from Labour's executive recently, The Times of London paid her the compliment of saying that she remained "a potential prime minister."
A question still to be resolved is whether the new party will agree to an alliance between disenchanted Labourites and the present Liberal Party, whose leader, David Steel, is urging a cooperative pact.
A Times of London public-opinion poll this week suggested that a Social Democrat-Liberal alliance would command nearly 40 percent of the national vote in a general election, with Labour getting 27 percent and the ruling Conservatives a mere 21 percent.
Labour and Conservative leaders dispute the findings of the opinion poll, but Mrs. Williams's "mainstream" approach to issues, coupled with her own strong personality, has no doubt helped to boost enthusiasm for the prospective center party.
Mr. Steel's supporters say he would expect to be the leader of a Social Democrat-Liberal alliance, but Mrs. Williams's personal qualities outstrip his appeal in the eyes of many citizens. Her fellow Labour Party defectors, including Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and William Rodgers, lack the same degree of popularity and could be expected to rally 'round Mrs. Williams in any jousting for leadership.
The Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, knows that if a center party under her leadership can begin to establish itself, Labour itself will be in trouble.
The drastic swing to the left in the Labour Party seems certain to alienate many voters. Mr. Foot has few senior colleagues with any thing like the personal popularity of Mrs. Williams.