LEADING Conservatives, including the party chairman, are urging Margaret Thatcher to stop damaging the prospects of their party's reelection by publicly undermining John Major, who succeeded her as prime minister seven months ago. Calls to Mrs. Thatcher to desist from critical comments about Mr. Major's policies and abilities have come from Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, and from a growing number of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs).
There is already concern among Conservatives about the adverse political impact on their party of a deep economic recession and public opinion polls showing the government eight points behind the Labour Party opposition.
Major's attempts to burnish his own leadership image, they say, have been blunted by Thatcher's fault-finding.
There have been suggestions by senior Conservative strategists, that the prime minister's hopes of calling a general election in the autumn have been frustrated by the Thatcher interventions. An election next year now seems probable.
The Iron Lady's latest bombshell exploded last week with comments to Bart, a Japanese magazine, about the poll tax - the local government levy which she once called her "flagship" and which Major was forced to abandon.
She told Bart in an interview: "I can defend the tax clearly and explicitly at any time, in any place, and to any person. I did not make that law with the next election in mind. I did it because I believed it would be for the good of the country in the longer run, 10 years from now, 20 years from now."
Thatcher said the approach to local government finance now preferred by Major could put Britain on the road to ruin.
Earlier, on June 2, the staunchly Conservative Sunday Telegraph, carried a front-page story reporting a series of criticisms of Major, said to have been made privately by Thatcher to close friends. She was reported to have told them that Major "doesn't believe in anything" and is "gray."
Thatcher's office issued a denial, but it did not carry conviction with Conservatives who claim privately that the language was typical "Thatcher-ese."
In an attempt to head off further Thatcher criticism, Mr. Patten, who is preparing his party for the general election that must be held within a year, urged Thatcher June 9 to "have regard to the way her words can be picked up and maneuvered."
Conservative MPs were blunter.
Sir Peter Tapsell, a senior backbencher, said: "If she goes on making these sort of public pronouncements, she is merely weakening John Major's authority. She would be much wiser, in her own interests, to write her memoirs."
Jerry Hayes, an outspoken MP, advised Thatcher to "put party before self" and urged her to announce that she would not stand for the House of Commons at the coming general election.
In a forthright comment, Sir Marcus Fox, vice chairman of a highly influential committee of Conservative MPs, said: "It is not asking too much of colleagues, however high they may have climbed in the party and in government, to remove any doubt about their loyalty to John Major."
Coming from senior members of a party that prefers not to wash its linen in public, such remarks are striking in their candor.
The problem Thatcher is posing Major has its roots in what her friends describe as her bitterness about the way the party got rid of her as leader last November.
Six weeks ago, she told the US magazine Vanity Fair of her distress and disappointment at being ditched after 11 years in office and 15 years as party leader.
Since then, she has been traveling widely to obtain funds to set up a proposed Thatcher Foundation which, she hopes, will perpetuate the political and economic ideas that inspired her three administrations.
The interview with Bart, for which she was reportedly paid British pounds10,000 ($16,700), was part of the fund-raising process.
Major has launched a series of counterattacks on Labour, but the flurry over Thatcher's remarks has blunted their impact.
He made a fiery speech June 7, saying that though Labour campaigners wore red roses in their lapels, they had red tape in their pockets.
A Labour government would be a calamity, he said. Reports of the speech however were overshadowed by coverage of Thatcher's remarks.
Conservative Party strategists appear at least as worried about internal party bickering as about Labour's attacks on Major.
A senior Cabinet minister said Major's problem is that Thatcher is behaving like Edward Heath, the Conservative leader she ousted in 1975, and who later kept criticizing her from the sidelines.
"As long as Margaret stays a member of the Commons, and active, John Major will be in trouble," the minister said.
Thatcher has so far refused to indicate whether she will seek re-election to the House of Commons.