London — Just when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought she was politically secure , a major revolt has blown up inside her Conservative Party, Monitor correspondent David K. Willis reports.
This is the meaning behind the remarkable vote in the House of Commons late July 13, when the government squeaked through by its lowest margin so far - a mere eight votes.
On the surface, the issue was whether the government should restore a 5 percent cut in unemployment benefits imposed in 1980. In fact, it goes much deeper.
''More and more Tory members of Parliament are now coming to believe that Mrs. Thatcher is wrong to rely too much on two things: the Falklands victory, and the chaos inside the opposition Labour Party,'' one veteran political insider here told this newspaper. ''Their business friends tell them the economy is not in fact picking up the way the chancellor (Sir Geoffrey Howe, of the Exchequer) says it is. They are worried.''
So 18 Tory MPs startled the Cabinet Tuesday by voting against the government in favor of restoring the 5 percent cut, especially since unemployment benefits are to be subject to income tax beginning this month. Thirty-six votes swung on the issue - 18 away from the usual government majority of about 40, and 18 for Labour. At least five others abstained, and at least one Cabinet minister was thought to be sympathetic.
Adding to the sense of urgency, Tory rebels feel, is a new prediction by the Britain's voice of industry, Sir Terence Beckett, director general of the Confederation of British Industry. He told Tory backbenchers July 13 that economic activity was much flatter than had been expected. It could worsen, and unemployment could hit 31/4 million by the end of the year.
Tory rebels say this could be disastrous for Conservative reelection hopes, and they have vowed to look for other issues on which to try to force Mrs. Thatcher to show more social concern.