An air of increasing certainty that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is preparing the ruling Conservative Party for a general election within a year has begun to pervade Westminster.
The speech by Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the new session of the British Parliament has been widely interpreted as a partial scene-setter for an election. The government's election agents have been quietly told to gear up the Conservative Party in the constituencies in preparation for a poll possibly well before the government's five-year term ends in spring 1984.
Above all, Mrs. Thatcher herself is believed to be addressing the political factors she must weigh before she finally asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament.
The key factors are:
* The state of the economy. Inflation is crashing back down through the single-digit barrier, thanks to the government's deflationary policies. On the other hand, unemployment is above 3 million and still rising.
* The Falklands factor. Mrs. Thatcher's firm handling of crisis redounds to her political credit. But last week's United Nations General Assembly call for negotiations with Argentina was a blow to the prime minister, who has set herself against early dealing with Buenos Aires.
* The morale of the government's political opponents. The Labour Party appears to be papering over its worst internal splits and may begin to regain its electoral credibility if a general election is delayed for very long.
* The speech to both houses of Parliament by the Queen. Apart from undertakings to sell into private ownership two public corporations - British Telecom and British Shipbuilders - the government's program appeared to be a formula for marking time.
Some of Mrs. Thatcher's advisers are urging her to consider a general election as early as the spring, but the prime minister's own instinct is to hang on later into 1983 in the hope that inflation by then will be really low and unemployment at least leveling out.
Mrs. Thatcher's trump card in determining the date for the election lies in her mastery over her party. Despite complaints by the party's economic moderates that her policies are not working, she has firm control of her Cabinet and is widely admired by Tories in towns and cities and in the shires.