A whirlwind Washington visit by Neil Kinnock, the leader of the British Labor party, failed to dispel Reagan administration concerns over the official British opposition's defense policies. Moreover, the visit ended with an embarrassing public disagreement between Mr. Kinnock and the White House over just who said what during the 30-minute White House session, and over just what the meeting accomplished.
There is widespread speculation that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will call an election in June. Her current visit to Moscow guarantees saturation press coverage at home, enhancing her claim to international standing and respect.
Kinnock, not to be outdone, came to the United States for the second time in three months and managed to meet Friday in a single session with President Reagan and the secretaries of state and defense, the national-security adviser, and the White House chief of staff.
It was, by any accounting, a publicity coup. Kinnock told a packed press conference afterward that he had explained the Labor Party's defense policies to the President in forthright terms, and that at no time did the President register any concern that those policies might damage the NATO alliance.
The kernel of Kinnock's arguments is that Britain, a small country, is already spending a disproportionate amount on defense. But dividing its spending on both nuclear and conventional forces has been a mistake, because neither is now adequate nor credible to a would-be attacker.
Kinnock's solution is to scrap the aging British Polaris nuclear submarine force, halt the planned acquisition of the new Trident nuclear force, and spend the money instead on conventional armaments. By Kinnock's reckoning, that would mean an additional $2.4 billion a year available for conventional forces.
But, although Kinnock stressed the practical budgetary argument, his party's defense policy is also ideological, calling for ``nonnuclear'' defenses, regardless of cost considerations. Accordingly, the Labor party would also remove some 160 US cruise missiles based in Britain. It would also convert two US military bases in Britain from nuclear to conventional uses.
Kinnock argued that these moves would be in line with the Reagan administration's own goals of beefed-up conventional forces and the removal of all medium-range nuclear forces from Europe. After the White House meeting, he stressed that the administration now ``can have no doubt whatsoever about our commitment to NATO.''
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Mr. Reagan told Kinnock that the party's ideas, if carried out, would weaken NATO and undermine US negotiators trying to work out arms reductions with the Soviet Union. Kinnock termed Mr. Fitzwater's account ``extraordinary'' before heading back to Britain.
Fitzwater stressed the President's opposition to ``unilateral'' nuclear disarmament - a term that Kinnock had tried to avoid. Kinnock said he told Reagan his party would do nothing to impede progress in arms control negotiations. However, he said, the party would eventually have to take action on its own if US-Soviet arms talks prove inconclusive.