Winter of bad news erodes Margaret Thatcher's image of invincibility

These are troubling times for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She has been unable to get the kind of political liftoff she desperately needs to pull herself out of the political morass she has found herself in.

Her public image remains largely negative on what is usually her political stock in trade: truthfulness and plain dealing. A poll out this week conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation shows that as many as 7 out of 10 people feel she has not given a satisfactory explanation of the events surrounding the Westland affair.

The Westland dispute arose when the ailing helicopter company received two offers for its takeover, one from a European consortium led by British Aerospace, the other from a US-led consortium. The then-Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine resigned, alleging that the Thatcher government was backing the US deal and attempting to silence his sponsorship of the European bid.

The controversy left Prime Minister Thatcher without two key Cabinet ministers: Mr. Heseltine, who stormed out of her Cabinet, and Trade and Industry Secretary Leon Brittan, who was forced to quit when it became public that he had authorized the disclosure of a confidential letter that included criticism aimed at Heseltine.

What began as a bad week early in the New Year with Heseltine's resignation and deteriorated into a bad month with the aftermath of the Westland controversy has now become a miserable winter for the prime minister.

Besides the worst-ever unemployment figures -- which until now had been her only Achilles' heel -- Thatcher has been forced by her own Conservative Party to beat a tactical retreat in calling off talks with the United States' Ford Motor Company for the proposed takeover of Austin Rover. One wing of her party is concerned that perhaps the entire British motor industry is being sold lock, stock, and barrel to the US. Talks were already under way about selling BL's bus and trucks division and Land Rover to General Motors.

All of these developments have eroded the prime minister's image of invincibility within the ruling Conservative Party. Party members are split over whether the party would be better off without her or whether its long-term interests would be better served by rallying around her.

The unsettled mood has brought warnings from some party elders that, in their haste to shed Thatcher, some members of Parliament could bring the whole party structure down on their heads -- risking their own political survival at the next election.

While Thatcher's style of government and her performance during the Westland affair have arguably lowered the public's esteem for her, there are no indications that some of her possible contenders would do any better or that there is a single obvious replacement candidate.

Although Thatcher has always kept the upper hand with opposition parties, of great concern now is that, over the Westland affair, dissonant voices within her own party have emerged for the first time -- a far more dangerous threat than any posed by opposition political leaders.

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