LONDON -- A clear majority of British voters believe Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has run the country for 11 years, should resign before the next general election, according to an opinion poll to be printed today.
The poll, taken after the sudden resignation of her deputy prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, last week, adds heavily to the political woes that are confronting her and increasingly throwing into question her control of the nation and the Conservative Party.
Disarray in Tory ranks intensified yesterday with a coded but blunt attack on Mrs. Thatcher by former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, the man most of those polled favored to replace her.
Mr. Heseltine, who like Sir Geoffrey quit the government to protest Mrs. Thatcher's negative approach to Europe, said the "collective wisdom" of the Cabinet should set government policy.
And, in a clear sideswipe at Mrs. Thatcher's domination of the government, he said: "If decisions continue to be taken or imposed that do not carry this collective endorsement, the stresses will continue to show and could be our undoing."
Opposition politicians gleefully interpreted Mr. Heseltine's comments as evidence of bitter internal conflict among the Tories and declared the government was in terminal decline.
In the latest poll of voters, 64 percent said Mrs. Thatcher should step down. Only 23 percent said they were satisfied with her performance, one of the lowest ratings of her tenure. The Numbers Market Research poll for The Independent on Sunday credited the opposition Labor party with a 17 percentage point lead in popularity over the Tories.
For Mrs. Thatcher, last week was one of the worst since she gained power in 1979 and was being widely viewed here as a watershed in the nation's political life.
Even if Mrs. Thatcher survives, she is unlikely to wield the sort of power that has characterized her leadership in the past. Her Cabinet now contains a majority of moderates. Sir Geoffrey was the last of the original 1979 team that put the stamp of Thatcherism on the country.
Sir Geoffrey's departure was a particularly hard blow. The most taciturn and loyal of her Cabinet colleagues, he finally rebelled against her strident opposition to European unity.
He was sitting beside her in Parliament the other day when she passed this absolute judgment on Jacques Delors' plans for a federal Europe: "No. No. No."
The Guardian credited Mrs. Thatcher with a "Vesuvian" performance. It was one eruption too many for Sir Geoffrey. He quit, making Mrs. Thatcher's personal style and her approach to Europe two of the central issues in the next general election, which must be held by mid-1992.
"We should be in the business not of isolating ourselves unduly but of offering positive alternatives that can enable us to be seriously engaged" in Europe, he wrote in his letter of resignation.
But last week at a summit meeting of the European Community in Rome, far from being engaged, Britain was isolated. Mrs. Thatcher was outvoted 11-1 by the other leaders. They set a timetable for monetary union, including a single currency and a European Central bank, which she rejects.
She flew home to headlines declaring: "Maggie All Alone Again" and "Defiant Thatcher Left in Cold."
Routinely over the years, Mrs. Thatcher has sought to slow the shift to European centralization. To her, British sovereignty is sacrosanct. And nothing is more sovereign than the political independence of the "mother of parliaments" at Westminster and the individual identity of the pound sterling.
"What is the point of trying to get elected to Parliament only to hand over our sterling and hand over the power of this House [of Commons] to Europe?" she asked members of Parliament on her return.
But her party is riven on the issue. Four members of her Cabinet -- including the defense, treasury and trade secretaries -- have resigned over policy on Europe.
Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown said after Sir Geoffrey's departure that Europe was "the San Andreas fault that runs down the middle of the Cabinet table." The government, he said, was "mortally divided."
Inside her office in Downing Street, the mood was a mixture of annoyance, resentment and determination.
"The prime minister has been accused of being naughty, nasty and unkind to people in Europe," said one Thatcher confidant. "I think we have reached the state where anyone can say what they like and do what they like to the Brits, but the Brits can't say boo to a continental goose."
"The argument is not whether we are part of Europe or are going to be part of Europe," said a Thatcher aide. "The argument is what kind of Europe it should be."