CAN Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher be persuaded to change her style as a leader? Or will she persist with what some of her most senior government colleagues are saying openly is a presidential approach alien to the British Constitution and calculated to lose the ruling Conservatives the next general election?
In the wake of the Oct. 26 resignation of Nigel Lawson, the prime minister's chancellor of the exchequer for more than six-and-a-half years, these are the dominant questions in British politics. How Mrs. Thatcher addresses them is likely to determine whether she remains prime minister and is able to lead the ruling Conservative party to a fourth successive electoral victory in under three years' time.
Mr. Lawson's resignation seemed at first to be a fairly straightforward case of Thatcher's chief Treasury minister disagreeing with her over economic and financial policy. But the crisis has since taken on a full constitutional dimension. Several leading Conservatives have publicly complained about the prime minister's allegedly dictatorial style, urging her to abandon it in favor of traditional ministerial government.
Among the Tories who have publicly confronted Thatcher are Sir Geoffrey Howe, the deputy prime minister; Kenneth Baker, chairman of the Tory party; Douglas Hurd, the newly appointed foreign secretary; Norman Tebbit, an outspoken elder statesman; and the leaders of the main House of Commons backbench committees.
Sir Geoffrey said it was important for Thatcher to agree to Britain's early membership of the European Monetary System (EMS). Her disagreement with him on this issue prompted her to sack him as foreign secretary in July.
Mr. Baker said there was an urgent need for ``collective responsibility'' in the government. The Tory backbench leaders who met Thatcher for lunch last Monday, had all stressed the same point, he said.
Baker, as party chairman, will be responsible for organizing the Conservative general election campaign.
Mr. Tebbit was stronger in his criticism of Thatcher. ``Mr. Lawson's resignation created an appalling political muddle and has damaged the prime minister's credibility,'' he said. ``All too often she has taken for granted the loyalty and support of her best political friends, damaging and hurting them by seeming to prefer itinerant advisers.''
Lawson resigned, saying he could not continue as chancellor so long as she refused to sack Sir Alan Walters, an economic adviser opposed to Britain's membership of the EMS. Sir Alan resigned within hours of Lawson's own departure. The heart of the crisis is a fundamental clash between Thatcher and many of her most influential Conservative colleagues on how British prime ministers should run their governments.
Strictly speaking, a prime minister is ``first among equals'' in the Cabinet and delegates the running of government departments to ministers. Cabinet meetings under the prime minister's chairmanship are reported to be opportunities for policy to be discussed and for ministers to report on their own activities.
Constitutionally, the ministers are responsible to Parliament, not to the prime minister.
In her 10 years in government, however, Thatcher has centralized the system, appointing several prime ministerial advisers who work at 10 Downing Street. Sir Alan was one such adviser; Charles Powell was another, specializing in foreign policy.
This prime ministerial team, according to Thatcher's critics, enabled her to coordinate policy from her own office and to be a good deal more than first among equals. Cabinet meetings have become routine occasions, and supposedly senior ministers have tended to lose influence over their own spheres of activity.
In a lengthy television interview on Oct. 29, Thatcher made it plain that she did not intend to alter her ruling style. ``Strong leadership will continue,'' she told the interviewer.
Then last Tuesday Lawson unexpectedly addressed the Commons from the backbenches, and denounced the prime minister's leadership style. He blamed her for undermining his position and his anti-inflation policies.
``For our system of Cabinet government to work effectively, the prime minister of the day must appoint ministers that he or she trusts, and then leave them to carry out policy. When differences of view emerge, as they are bound to do from time to time, they should be resolved privately and, wherever appropriate, collectively,'' Lawson said.
He said Thatcher's stubborn retention of Sir Alan was ``the tip of a singularly ill-conceived iceberg, with all the destructive potential that icebergs possess.'' Britain, he insisted, must join the EMS as soon as possible.
The pressure on Thatcher to accept the need for a more collective style of government began to intensify after Lawson resigned.
An averaging of the latest opinion polls shows the opposition Labour Party with 48 percent and the Conservatives 38 percent. One poll, in which people were asked about their attitude to the prime minister, indicated that if Thatcher stood down, the Tories would have 47 percent and Labour 40 percent.