LONDON — WHETHER a split Conservative Party sustains its 15-year rule in Britain may be decided on July 4.
On that day, the party will choose between the "conviction politics" of a loyal follower of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the "pragmatism" of current Prime Minister John Major.
Challenging Mr. Major to lead the party is John Redwood, a staunch admirer of Mrs. Thatcher's ideology and a critic of Britain drawing closer to the European Union. Major called for the party vote hoping he would not be challenged, but now he faces widening the party's rift over pragmatism vs. ideology, and possible loss of power.
According to political analyst Philip Stephens, "a struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party" has begun between "the forces of the center and the radical right."
"Our party is staring into the abyss. Either we back the prime minister or we run the risk of consigning ourselves to oblivion," said a senior Major loyalist of Mr. Redwood's entry into the campaign. Until resigning on June 26, Redwood was a member of Major's Cabinet.
The Conservatives' chances in Britain's next general elections, to be held by the spring of 1997, seem shaky now. Major's supporters say Redwood would only make matters worse. Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke said Conservatives "could not be reelected in a thousand years on John Redwood's right-wing ideology."
Mr. Spock seeks the helm
Redwood, a tall, saturnine intellectual whose relentless pursuit of logic and whose prominent ears have earned him the nickname "Mr. Spock," sees the future differently.
Unveiling his platform on June 27 while Major was attending a European Union summit in Cannes, France, he pledged to contest the leadership on "a cogent and coherent agenda," including measures to cut taxes, curb state power, and trim the authority of the European Commission, based in Brussels.
While Thatcher makes no secret of her belief that Major's European policies are bad for Britain, she has praised Redwood for his skepticism on Europe. In the mid-1980s, he was head of Thatcher's policy unit.
In the country shires and well-heeled parts of British cities - traditionally the heartland of Conservative strength - the leadership battle appears to have been greeted with a mixture of hope and despair.
A member of Parliament whose constituency lies in the "home counties" ringing London, said: "John Major was right to try to bring an end to infighting over Europe by calling for his critics to put up or shut up."
But he added that Major "obviously didn't anticipate a Redwood candidacy, and that could be his - and our party's - undoing."
In power since 1979, Conservatives know that to win a fifth general election in a row, they must quickly unite around a leader who commands their respect. Recent polls and local elections have showed, however, that Conservative disunity has alienated many who voted for Major in 1992.
The Conservatives face an opposition Labour Party with newly wrought middle-of-the road policies and an effective, youthful leader in Tony Blair.
Writing in the London Times on June 27, political analyst Peter Riddell said a defeat for Major was now "more conceivable" - but not at the hands of Redwood. If Redwood earns about a third of the vote of Conservative members of Parliament in the first ballot, Mr. Riddell calculates, Major would be under pressure to withdraw.
If he did, friends of Michael Heseltine, the Trade Secretary, and Michael Portillo, the right-wing Employment Secretary, say they would become the main contenders. This would create a "messy Left versus Right battle," says Riddell.
Portillo, like Redwood, is an ardent Thatcherite and favors minimal state interference in the lives of citizens. He has pledged to support Major, but is not bound to do so if Major does not win the first ballot. Heseltine, who opposed Major for the Conservative leadership in 1990, is in many ways Portillo's opposite. He is seen as pro-EU and favors state intervention in industry.
Few are predicting who would win if more contenders emerge, but the contest is certain to deepen divisions in the ruling party that Major had hoped to heal.