Former members of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cabinet sitting on the back benches of the Conservative side of the House of Commons are more distinguished, in the aggregate, than the current ministers sitting on the front bench. That is dangerous for her at a time when opinion polls show the opposition Labor Party well ahead. The Conservative Party is not sentimental; it craves a leader who will win the next election.
The resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe as deputy prime minister adds to the list of best and brightest Tories who served Mrs. Thatcher but disagree with her European policy. Most of the departed believe that Europe will inevitably centralize its institutions at the expense of national sovereignty and that Britain, unable to stop the trend, should design and lead it.
Even current cabinet ministers seem quietly of the same mind. Mrs. Thatcher, however, is being dragged kicking and obstructing into Europe and believes the slower pace will create sounder institutions. The British people may agree more with Mrs. Thatcher than with her critics. But they deplore a governing party at odds with itself.
Mrs. Thatcher, Britain's most dominant prime minister since Winston Churchill, has wrought permanent changes on the British economic and social landscape. The men at odds with her would not reverse these changes. Sir Geoffrey, her first chancellor of the exchequer, largely crafted them.
But the party wants to win the next election, which must be held by mid-1992. The Labor Party, out of power since 1979, has been whipped into moderation by Neil Kinnock and strikes the electorate as a credible governing party, if the polls are to be believed. Labor would accept much of the Thatcherite revolution creating multitudes of home owners and share owners out of former nationalized housing and industry.
The first possibility of party revolt is the ritual (re-)election of the Conservative Party leader in the House of Commons later this month. The name most mentioned as challenger is Michael Heseltine, silver-haired and smooth-tongued former prodigy of British business and politics, who resigned as defense minister in 1986.
He would be going up against Britain's most resourceful politician, who is most dangerous when wounded. The issue to the Tory members of Commons would not be which they liked best, but which they thought would lead them to victory in the next election.