PRIME Minister Margaret Thatcher seems certain to come under increasing pressure in her own Cabinet to accept a more positive line on future relations between Britain and its European partners. She has already been obliged to mount what a government official called ``a damage-limitation exercise'' after a verbal assault by one of her closest political friends on West Germany and the European Community.
The authority in the Cabinet of Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, both champions of European integration, has been greatly enhanced by the forced resignation of Nicholas Ridley, the trade secretary.
Mr. Ridley in a magazine article had accused West Germany of trying to ``take over'' Europe and heavily criticized EC leaders in Brussels for their enthusiastic support of European integration. His departure means that Mrs. Thatcher no longer has a strong and influential supporter in Cabinet for her own ultra-cautious views on European unity.
Peter Lilley, the right-wing junior minister who has been appointed trade secretary, has neither the experience nor the close friendship with Thatcher that gave Ridley his influence at the upper levels of policy making on Europe.
This means that Mr. Hurd and Mr. Major, who in recent months have been trying to edge Thatcher toward acceptance of an integrated Europe, will not have to cope in Cabinet with strongly anti-European views of the type known to have been voiced by Ridley.
It has fallen to Hurd to spearhead attempts to repair the damage caused by the furor stirred up by the Ridley onslaught on Germany and the EC.
In a nationwide television broadcast the day after Ridley resigned, the foreign secretary repudiated the offending remarks, saying they ``did not represent government policy.'' He hoped the whole affair would ``quickly blow over.''
The next day he carried a similar message to a meeting of EC foreign ministers in Brussels and tried to reassure West German representatives that Britain wanted friendly relations with Bonn.
According to senior British diplomats, however, it may not be easy to heal the wounds opened up by the Ridley attack. One British government source said: ``Chancellor Kohl has done his best to laugh the whole thing off, but a certain sourness has entered Anglo-German relations. It may take a while to disappear.''
Thatcher's apparently increased isolation in her own cabinet on the European question shows little sign of changing her personal views.
The prime minister told the House of Commons that Ridley's remarks had been ``wrong'' and did not represent government policy.
Pointedly, however, she refused to sack her old friend and colleague, and has said subsequently that ``British policy towards Europe will not change.''
Lord Callaghan, the former British Labour prime minister, said July 17 that ``considerable damage'' had been done, particularly to the cause of European unity. He said he did not share the view that the Ridley remarks were necessarily an aberration.
``My fear is the Mrs. Thatcher may try to stir up populist anti-German and anti-European sentiments in Britain for electoral purposes. That would be tragic,'' Lord Callaghan said.
After the Ridley resignation a series of opinion polls conducted by newspapers tended to show a substantial minority of British voters supporting his opinions about Germany and the EC. Younger voters were less inclined to support him.
Both Hurd and Major know that a substantial body of Conservative opinion in the countryside is sceptical about the EC or downright hostile to it, and this makes them cautious about sounding too enthusiastic in public.