THE British government's efforts to promote family values is exposing deep disagreements between senior ministers and grass-roots activists over what constitutes moral conduct on the part of politicians.
Senior officials of the ruling Conservative Party are calling on Prime Minister John Major to spell out in detail what he meant last October when he urged Britain to ``go back to basics'' in political policy and personal conduct.
Mr. Major, whose popularity measured by opinion polls remains low, is being accused by Labour Party opponents of allowing double standards to prevail at high policymaking levels, with ministers demanding more stringent moral standards from citizens than from elected politicians.
The controversy, which a weekend public opinion poll suggested is sharply dividing Conservatives, was sparked by the revelation that Tim Yeo, the environment minister, fathered a child out of wedlock last year.
Mr. Yeo, who has made disparaging statements about unmarried mothers and single-parent families in the past, was forced to resign as a minister last week when his local parliamentary constituency withdrew its support. Earlier, Major had indicated that he wanted Yeo to remain in the government.
Conservative Party chairman Sir Norman Fowler and Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd both publicly backed Yeo in his contention that his private life was his own business, and not a matter for public debate.
But amid a week-long barrage of media publicity, Conservative Party officials in Yeo's South Suffolk constituency took the opposite view. Most of the South Suffolk party officials who attacked the ex-minister on moral grounds are women.
On Jan. 5, Major accepted the minister's resignation. Peter Hennessy, a contemporary historian at London University, says it is ``the only case in this century of party officials at local level forcing a prime minister to get rid of a government minister.''
Pressure on Major to clarify his own stance intensified yesterday when Yeo admitted that he had fathered another child outside marriage when he was 22.
Another Conservative parliamentarian on Saturday resigned a junior post at the Health Ministry after disclosures that he had obtained ownership of a house from a local authority after initially lending money to a third person to make the purchase.
The parliamentarian said the transaction was ``perfectly legal,'' but explained that given the supercharged political atmosphere generated by the Yeo affair, he was wise to resign.
Major's experience of how a campaign to promote ethical values in national life has led him into what a government-supporting parliamentarian describes as ``a moral maze of uncertainty, hypocrisy, and contradiction'' began last fall at the Conservative Party's annual conference.
The prime minister then told delegates: ``We are going to lead Britain back to the values of common sense.'' It was time to instill ``self-discipline and respect for the law,'' and to assert the need for ``responsibility for yourself and your family.''
The theme was taken up at the conference by other senior ministers who gave it what has since proved to be a dangerous twist. John Patten, the education secretary, said there was ``no greater betrayal than having a child and then walking away.''
Peter Lilley, the social security secretary, declared: ``It is time to reaffirm that ideally, children need two loving parents'' whose ``first duty'' was to their children. It is ``a duty for life.''
Major is being criticized within his own party for not demanding Yeo's resignation when he first heard about the minister's conduct. Instead, a Conservative backbencher said he allowed Yeo to ``twist in the wind'' and then ``let a colleague's future be determined by a group of blue-rinse local party activists.''
Major did not help his own cause, the parliamentarian said, when on Jan. 6 he claimed that ``back to basics'' was not ``a crusade about personal morality'' and was ``never presented as such.'' This claim prompted leading newspapers to reprint the views of ministers who a few months earlier had clearly said it was.
MR. HENNESSY says the Yeo affair exposes a gap between ``definitions of morality as perceived from Downing Street'' and ``how such matters are seen by hard-working Conservative officials in the British countryside.'' He notes that while Major was pleading for tolerance to be shown toward Yeo, the local party officials were ``acting on the moral standards the prime minister had asserted at the party conference.''
There are suggestions, too, that Major may have been slow to notice the growth in the number of women holding office in local Conservative Party organizations.
Julian Critchley, a senior Conservative parliamentarian with a reputation as a political maverick, says that in the last few years, women have begun to dominate at the local level. Many women have become ``commanding officers,'' she claims.
London newspapers reported yesterday that after the revelation that Yeo had fathered not just one but two children outside marriage, he was under pressure from local activists in South Suffolk to step down as parliamentarian for the area.