BRITISH Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has made sweeping changes in her Cabinet aimed at recouping her government's flagging popularity. In so doing, she has boosted the political fortunes of a new star with the credentials to lay a claim to the Conservatives' leadership when she eventually steps down.
The Cabinet reshuffle Monday was far more sweeping than expected and was the most radical since Thatcher became prime minister 10 years ago: Half of her top ministers were either sacked or moved into new posts. A notable exception is Nigel Lawson, chancellor of the exchequer, who will continue to battle inflation.
In a move that surprised many observers, the prime minister edged out Sir Geoffrey Howe from the post of foreign secretary, replacing him with John Major. Sir Geoffrey becomes deputy prime minister and leader of the House of Commons.
Mr. Major, one of Mrs. Thatcher's favorite politicians, shoots up from being No. 2 at the Treasury. In his new post, he is bound to play a high-profile role. He is widely seen as the politician with the best chance of becoming Tory leader.
Kenneth Baker takes over as chairman of the Conservative Party with a brief to ensure that it wins the next general election in two or three years time. Overseas Development Minister Christopher Patten gets the ultra-sensitive environment portfolio amid rising voter concern on ecology issues.
It has been two years since the Thatcher government was returned to office with a 100-plus majority of parliamentary seats. Since then it has hit trouble in many key areas.
Inflation has doubled, the government's handling of ``green'' issues has attracted heavy criticism from supporters, and Thatcher's strictures about the European Community are thought to have lost her party many seats in the June elections to the European Parliament.
Mr. Patten will have to persuade Britons that the environment is safe in Conservative hands. He must also push through Parliament highly unpopular bills on privatizing water supplies and introducing a new local government tax.
Thatcher expects Major to rebuild government support on European questions. As new heir-apparent to the prime minister, his policies will be under the closest scrutiny in both Britain and Europe.
To Mr. Baker, who also has pretensions to the Tory leadership, will fall the job of pumping renewed confidence into Conservatives around Britain. Their feelings are reflected in the 10 percent lead the opposition Labour Party currently enjoys in public opinion polls.
The treatment of Howe, the longest-serving foreign secretary in more than 70 years, is seen by some observers as harsh, but it is likely that its rationale will become clearer in the months ahead.
The Commons will start to be televised next year, and Howe, as leader of the House, will be prominent in explaining government business. He is a reassuring if dull TV performer, with a safe pair of political hands. Most of the other promotions and demotions ordered by Thatcher seem related to the individuals' skills as TV communicators - or their lack of them.
Baker is especially adept on television, as are Major, Patten, and other younger politicians now being thrust into the ministerial limelight.