March came in like a growling lion for Prime Minister Thatcher
London — The ides of March have not been kind to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The week ending March 15 presented at least four ill omens to her Conservative government.
* The results of a by-election in Southend, which nearly produced a Labour winner, is seen as a slap at government policy. Edward (Teddy) Taylor, the only senior Conservative Member of Parliament to lose his seat in the general election last May, eked out a 430-vote victory. This is in a constituency where the late Sir Stephen McAdden rolled up a Conservative majority of 10,774 barely 10 months ago.
* Mrs. Thatcher's vigorous insistence on a boycott of the Moscow of Olympics is running afoul of forces in and out of government. Although many businesses have aided her by withdrawing financial support from the hardpinched British Olympic Association, a revolt is brewing among Conservative MPs. The MPS feel the boycott is not enough, while the public at large told poll-takers for the Observer newspaper that they support Britain's participation in the Olympics by a 3-to-1 majority.
* A jubilant House of Lords, heavily Conservative in makeup, revolted 2 to 1 against a clause in the government-sponsored education bill that would have given local governments the right to charge parents "as they think fit" for school transportation costs.
* The latest retail price index shows inflation at 19.1 percent -- well above the international average of 14 percent and likely, most observers agree, to reach 20 percent by this summer. At least one of the government's monetary policies aimed at curbing inflation -- an increase in interest rates -- appears to have nudged the index upward.
Mrs. Thatcher, however, put a brave face on the by-election results. Having been down in the depts -- touring the Selby coal field -- she surfaced to comment on the election: "There is no substitute for victory, and that is what we got."
Nevertheless some 40 percent of the government's supporters deserted the party. The narrow victory is ascribed to the unpopularity of the government's austere remedies for Britain's economic ills. This is coupled with the fact that Mr. Taylor, a Scotsman who previously represented Glasgow, was seen as an outsider to the southeast England seaside resort of Southend.
The March 17 debate on the Olympics also threatens government unanimity. It originally was scheduled as a short late-night session -- until bipartisan howls of disapproval forced a retreat by Leader of the House Norman St. John-Stevans and brought a promise of a full and early session.
The British Olympic Association, which still needs to raise $:400,000 ($900, 000), insists on going to Moscow. But the government has announced that athletes employed in the civil service will not be given the customary time off to attend the Olympics -- a move viewed by athletes as unacceptable coercion.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office is sending a minister of state, Douglas Hurd, to Geneva March 17 for discussions with the United States, Australia, and other countries on the possibility of an "alternative Olympics."