MARGARET THATCHER got the last laugh Tuesday, when her Conservative Party elected John Major to succeed her as British prime minister. Mrs. Thatcher had favored Mr. Major in the three-man race for the premiership, which was brought about by the party's rejection of her leadership a week earlier. On a personal level, Thatcher made no secret of her desire to block Michael Heseltine, the former Defense Minister whose challenge on Nov. 20 ended her 11-year rule.
But spite didn't dictate her endorsement of Major. More than Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, a hereditary patrician, and Mr. Heseltine, a self-invented patrician - indeed, more than the Oxford-educated Thatcher herself - the young chancellor of the exchequer embodies Thatcherism's commoner conservatism. Major left school at 16 and worked as a laborer before beginning a meteoric rise through banking and politics.
His election signals both the ascendancy of a new generation in Westminster, and a further weakening of the Oxbridge Establishment's grip on Britain's political life. He says his foremost goal is greater economic opportunity and mobility for Britons in a ``genuinely classless society.''
Major's election further demonstrates that the Conservatives' mutiny was not a repudiation of Thatcherism so much as a rejection, in sorrow more than in anger, of the prime minister's style and its effects on the party's fortunes. Even many of Thatcher's most loyal followers have noted her increasing imperiousness and a certitude that, though one of her greatest strengths, had dulled her political instincts.
There also are solid political reasons for the Tories' loss of confidence in Thatcher. Her fierce resistance to European monetary and political integration has isolated Britain in the councils of Europe. Her imposition of the hated ``poll tax,'' together with high inflation and interest rates, gave the Labour Party a double-digit lead over the Conservatives in opinion polls. The same polls show the Tories on top of Labour under a different leader.
Yet Mrs. Thatcher leaves office with one of the most distinguished political careers in British history. She changed the direction of her country as few national leaders have ever done. She was a stalwart friend of the United States in the cold war and the Persian Gulf.
May her bitterness soon pass, and may she find the satisfaction and national appreciation she richly deserves.