THE Conservative Party's showdown over whether to keep John Major as its leader and the nation's prime minister is, at heart, a battle over how much Britain should be part of Europe.
Friends and foes alike say the man who has led Britain for nearly five years will win the first ballot in his bid for reelection as party leader, after resigning last Thursday.
But they also agree that he must achieve a crushing victory in the first round of voting July 4 if his credibility is to be restored.
"The battle," says Hugo Young, a leading political analyst in London, "is not just about who will lead the Conservatives into the next general election. It is about Britain's future in Europe, and the lines are already being drawn on that issue."
Britons fear above all that with further integration into Europe, their government will have to relinquish control of national policy to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. Alone among all EU members, Britons have an unbroken parliamentary tradition lasting more than 600 years that they want to preserve.
A more symbolic threat to British sovereignty is enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which Britain has not fully adopted: If the Treaty is fulfilled in all respects, the queen would be defined as a mere citizen of Europe rather than as sovereign.
Under the British system, Major remains prime minister during the leadership contest, in which all Conservative members of Parliament have one vote. To win outright on the first ballot, Major must have an overall majority of votes, and at least 15 percent more than his nearest challenger.
If he fails to clear that hurdle, a second ballot will be held July 11, and at that point, Mr. Young says, "he would be terribly vulnerable." If he loses the reelection bid, Major says he will resign as prime minister.
On Saturday, Major lashed out at Conservative critics of his policies on Europe, telling party workers in London that the "Euroskeptics" represented "marginal strands of opinion." But polls show that at least half of Britain is skeptical about its EU membership.
Two names have emerged as likely contenders for the Conservative leadership. Friends of Norman Lamont, sacked by Major as chancellor of the exchequer last year, said he was preparing to announce his candidacy.
Hours after Major said he was resigning, Mr. Lamont accused him of mishandling European policy and taking credit for achievements which he, Lamont, had won for Britain.
On Saturday Edward Leigh, another ex-minister dismissed by Major, said John Redwood, a present member of the current Cabinet, "would make a strong challenger."
In the 72 hours after Major's resignation, Mr. Redwood was the only senior minister not to say unequivocally that he would back him on the first ballot.
Redwood is one of four Euroskeptics in the Cabinet who are against a closer British relationship with the EU. Like Lamont, he does not want the EU to adopt a single currency.
Mr. Leigh and other plotters say privately that if 100 Conservative members of Parliament either vote against Major on July 4 or abstain, his position will be untenable. They compare the situation with that of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when she won the first round of a contested party leadership election but later had to withdraw because she had not won big enough to prevent erosion of support for her.
The prime minister's position was made to look all the more exposed on Friday when Douglas Hurd, a leading Major loyalist and pro-European, announced he was resigning as foreign secretary.
Britain's domestic struggle over Europe has cast doubt on its performance at this week's European Union summit in Cannes, France.
Most analysts agreed that if Major did poorly in the first ballot and a second round became necessary, an entirely new scenario would emerge. Supporters of Michael Heseltine, the pro-EU trade secretary, and Michael Portillo, the deeply Euroskeptic employment secretary, said they would then throw their hats into the ring. "By that time" Leigh says, "John Major would be out of the race."
When Major stunned the nation with his resignation last Thursday, Downing Street sources indicated that he hoped to call the bluff of his critics and that nobody would challenge him.
With Redwood and Lamont both ready to do so, and several Conservatives saying that they would be prepared to stand as "stalking horses," that scenario no longer applies.
There is no good news for the Conservative Party from the opinion pollsters, no matter who becomes prime minister. A Sunday Times/NOP survey yesterday suggested that if Major were forced to quit as prime minister, the Conservatives could lose more support than they gained. Popular backing for Mr. Heseltine and Mr. Portillo is weaker than that for the prime minister.
Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labour Party, had few comments to make as the government party geared itself up for the July 4 contest.
"Whether Mr. Major stays or goes, the divisions in Conservative ranks will remain, and the disintegration will continue," he told reporters.
Mr. Blair said the only election that would resolve the crisis would be a general election.