London — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returned from her talks with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow convinced that her reputation as a world leader is set in concrete and that, back in Britain, the impact of her journey will increase her electoral appeal in coming months. By contrast, her chief opponent, Labour opposition leader Neil Kinnock, returned from his talks in Washington with President Ronald Reagan publicly angry at the treatment accorded him by White House officials and privately concerned, Labour officials say, that the trip did little or nothing to enhance his political reputation.
Reflecting on the two journeys, leaders of Britain's ``third force'' - the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance - calculated that their chances of becoming the balancing factor in the country's politics after the next general election, which may be held as early as next June, were consolidated by Mrs. Thatcher's successes and Mr. Kinnock's frustrations.
By wide consent, the political life in Britain has reached a point of fine balance in which no party leader dares expect a clear-cut result to emerge from an early sampling of the nation's preferences. The ruling Conservatives are ahead, but nobody at Tory headquarters in central London is prepared to forecast that Thatcher, fortified by her Moscow exposure and an annual budget that cut income tax by two percentage points, will run away with victory. The latest public opinion polls showing the Tories marginally ahead, and Labour and the alliance vying for second place, suggest an electorate with no cut-and-dried ideas.
David Steel, the Liberal leader, has said that the aim of the alliance now should be to achieve first place in the public's affections. But his more realistic supporters privately concede that this is mostly brave talk. What Mr. Steel and the SDP leader, David Owen, really want is to thrust Labour into a permanent third position. Kinnock's Washington adventure may help them in their objective. The Labour leader, who met Mr. Reagan for 25 minutes compared with Thatcher's 11 hours with Mr. Gorbachev, later complained that White House officials misrepresented his party's position on nuclear disarmament. This may turn out to be less important that the fact that Reagan accorded Kinnock the barest possible attention.
``We have a huge irony here,'' one Tory minister said. ``Gorbachev, our chief international adversary, took Mrs Thatcher seriously. Reagan, our firmest friend, had less than half an hour for Mr. Kinnock.''
The pressure that this is having on the Labour party and its leader is acute. Kinnock has been busily unveiling plans for the recovery of British industry and for cutting unemployment by one million in the early stages of a Labour government. But party strategists in their darker moments are finding it hard to see where Labour will get a parliamentary majority from if Thatcher continues to ride high and the alliance maintains itself as a substantial wedge in the affections of the electorate.
One political commentator remarked: ``In the 1970s there was a crisis of government. Today we have a crisis of opposition.'' He went on to note that Labour remained electorally strong in the impoverished North and in the inner cities. Elsewhere it was in ``terminal decline.''
This analysis poses two likely scenarios for Labour. It can look on as the Conservatives remain the strongest party and Thatcher, either in her own right or in some kind of coalition with the alliance, continues to lead the nation. Alternatively, Labour could accept that it has little chance of recovering its old strength and attempt to cultivate a broader left-wing consensus, which could (in theory) include the Social Democrats.
The difficulty Kinnock faces is that with less than a year to go before the general election, he could not retain personal credibility while conceding the force of such thinking. He has little option but to pit his own appeal as a political leader and his party's policies against Thatcher and the Tories. In any case, David Owen and the SDP are still bitterly regarded by most Labour supporters as political turncoats who deserted the socialist flag and trimmed their sails toward the middle.
Even if the Tories do not manage to win a clear-cut election victory, they are much more likely than Labour to be able to do a deal with the alliance. This would leave Kinnock a leader of a party lacking the strength to achieve victory in its own right and without the flexibility of policy or inclination to be able to transact a pact with the alliance to keep the Tories out.
Kinnock had hoped his talks in Washington would enable him to demonstrate to the world that he is at least a respected leader at the top table of the Western alliance. Instead, Thatcher has underlined her primacy in the field of international diplomacy, and now plans to exploit the political edge this gives her.