London — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has earned an important role for Britain in next week's arms control summit. Although she will not be in Washington for the sessions between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, she will meet with the Soviet leader during his brief stopover Monday in Britain on the way to the United States.
London observers say this side trip shows that Moscow recognizes Mrs. Thatcher's strong leadership and her position as unofficial spokesman for the European side of the Western alliance.
``While she is not a spokesman for Europe, Mrs. Thatcher nevertheless reflects European thinking,'' says US Ambassador to Britain, Charles Price. The Soviets, he added, respect the continuity of her leadership, which could well last into the 1990s, especially since Mr. Reagan is on the way out.
The Thatcher-Gorbachev meeting is expected to last two to three hours. It will give Mr. Gorbachev an opportunity to present his views to the European leader who is closest to President Reagan and who is the longest serving leader of the major Western powers. He also will be conferring with the one Western government whose support for the agreement on eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles is not in doubt.
A senior government official recently reaffirmed Britain's commitment to the intermediate-range nuclear missile (INF) accord, saying it required larger Soviet missile reductions than by the West and did not impair NATO.
But Thatcher also has been a strong proponent of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. And her government links its defense posture to the circumstances that have led to the US-Soviet arms pact. British Defense Secretary George Younger has said that the INF breakthrough was ``a total vindicatian of the strong policies that all of us have followed under Margaret Thatcher.''
The senior British official also said that the INF pact has reaffirmed the importance of Britain's and France's independent nuclear forces.
In advance of its own mini-summit, the Thatcher government is prepared for any gestures Gorbachev may make to ease the way for the INF agreement in the US and Europe. There is speculation such a gesture could take the form of a token unilateral withdrawal of conventional forces from Eastern Europe or concessions on longstanding regional problems, such as Afghanistan.
Officials say this could be a preventive measure to ensure there is no repeat of the situation following the signing of the Salt II agreement in 1979, which the US Senate failed to ratify.