London — Under mounting pressure to change her party's image and policy priorities, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has acted boldly to retrieve the languishing fortunes of the Conservatives. Swerving away from a battle against inflation, she has decided to make unemployment her new priority. To help, she has appointed a ``Jobs Sup- remo,'' named a new party chairman, and drastically refurbished her Cabinet.
Mrs. Thatcher's supporters see the moves as the beginning of a determined attempt to lay the groundwork for a Tory victory at a general election expected in about two years.
Her political critics dismiss the new policy emphasis as mere public relations and the new team as ``the same old jar of jellybeans.''
A few weeks ago the prime minister's advisers were talking about a modest reshuffle of her Cabinet. But then came a series of public opinion polls that showed the Tories trailing the opposition parties and Thatcher's own popularity at a new low.
When the team changes were finally announced, their sweeping nature took Tory supporters by surprise. John Gummer, party chairman since Thatcher's resounding electoral victory in 1983, was asked to step down. In his place Mrs Thatcher appointed Norman Tebbit, a tough right-wing politician with working-class roots, who narrowly escaped death in the Brighton terrorist bombing last year.
Lord Young was promoted to head a campaign to defeat unemployment. Home Secretary Leon Brittan, heavily criticized for his poor public image and clumsy handling of dealings with the British Broadcastring Corporation, was moved to the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He was replaced by the Northern Ireland secretary, Douglas Hurd.
The changes favored men who are good at presenting policies, not those who have the knack for administering them.
In another striking appointment, Thatcher appointed a fiction writer and former Tory member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, as Mr. Tebbit's deputy. Archer is a personable character, thought to be very capable of helping Tebbit in projecting a new party image. But the La- bour Party deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, dismissed him as ``a gimmick made flesh'' and complained that the prime minister had shown no disposition to change government policies -- only a desire to change faces.
Mr. Hattersley's argument may prove difficult to sustain in coming months. For six years Thatcher has argued that before anything else, inflation has to be defeated. Unemployment -- now running at well over 3 million -- enjoyed less attention.
But Lord Young's appointment to the key employment portfolio is seen as reversing the government's policy priorities. Young, a self-made millionaire who has a life peerage, will be assisted by Kenneth Clarke, a young lawyer of driving ambition whom many see as a future Tory party leader.
Together they will try to find ways of stimulating the economy, though the prime minister has ruled out massive injections of government money to prime the employment pump.
Thatcher's cabinet reshuffle was also seen as being aimed at healing party rifts.
By appointing Mr. Hurd to the important post of home secretary, she was sure to please followers of a former prime minister, Edward Heath. Hurd was once Mr. Heath's private secretary, and is also a novelist in his spare time.
At the treasury Thatcher appointed another Heath ally, John MacGregor, as chief secretary. A third Heathite, Peter Walker,remained in his job as energy secretary.
Overall, the cabinet changes moved the membership towards the center of the Tory spectrum.
Tebbit's appointment as chairman also raised conservative hopes that the party could regain support from working class voters.