London — The political tide that was threatening to beach Prime Minister Margaret That-cher's career has suddenly turned. Whether it has turned sufficiently to allow her party to have full confidence in her to lead them at the next election, just two years away, is still questionable.
But at least the morale of the dispirited party has improved markedly since Mrs. Thatcher's robust defense of her government in Monday's emergency debate.
Rumblings of duplicity within the Cabinet had been highly damaging to the prime minister, known for her forthrightness. But these were largely stilled when she disclosed with apologies that it was she who instigated a letter from the solicitor-general to Michael Heseltine, her former defense minister, who has been at the heart of the row. The letter accused Mr. Heseltine of ``material inaccuracies'' and undermined the case he was putting forward for a European consortium's bid to save the Westland Helicopter Company.
Thatcher's disclosure was sufficient to clear the issue and rebuild a broad public consensus within her party that Thatcher has survived the most serious challenge yet to her leadership.
To some extent, Thatcher's load was lightened by the intervention of Heseltine, who had started the whole row in the first place and who offered to bury the hatchet.
There was a further unexpected bonus for the prime minister. Her principal rival, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, who was in the most advantageous position of exploiting Thatcher's difficulties had, by all accounts, given a disastrous performance. He lost his way in his speech and fumbled over critical dates. Although he began the debate, he was outshone later by such experienced parliamentarians as David Owen, leader of the Social Democrats, and by Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party.
Mr. Kinnock's poor performance is raising doubts about his capacity to be prime minister and weakens the Labour threat to Thatcher. One reason why political commentators have been so far loathe to write off Thatcher's career is Labour's failure to take a commanding position in the polls, especially when the government is more than half way through its second term and vulnerable to voter apathy.
But Conservative members of Parliament, for all their public expressions of support, know privately the dent the Westland controversy has made in Thatcher's image. A poll taken on BBC morning TV the day after pointed to the prime minister's credibility problem. As many as 61 percent felt she was not telling the truth. Only 20 percent believed her.
Thatcher still faces insistent questions as to why she was not aware much sooner that her own staff as well as Department of Trade civil servants had had a hand in a leak of a letter the solicitor-general called a ``flagrant violation.''
Analysts here are saying that even if Thatcher survives her current ordeal, the memory of the Westland controversy will dog her next election campaign.