LONDON -- Former Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe made yesterday what was widely viewed as the most devastating parliamentary attack ever on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, possibly clearing the way for a formal leadership challenge.
That challenge could come today from either Sir Geoffrey or former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine. Both resigned from the Thatcher government over the prime minister's hostility to European unity.
Explaining his resignation yesterday in the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey said pointedly: "The time has come for others to consider their response to the tragic conflict of loyalty with which I have perhaps wrestled for far too long."
Sir Geoffrey was the only surviving member of the original 1979 Thatcher Cabinet until he resigned 13 days ago, throwing Mrs. Thatcher's grasp on power into jeopardy.
For the past year, the Conservative Party has lagged behind Labor in the polls as Mrs. Thatcher's domineering style of leadership and her increasing isolation on European unity have come under increased questioning.
Sir Geoffrey, one of the most taciturn of politicians, gave a speech yesterday that was described by parliamentary colleagues as "two or three parts lethal," "a funeral pyre," "absolutely devastating" and "fatally wounding" for Mrs. Thatcher.
He noted the honor of his service at the prime minister's side and then delivered the real message: "I have to say that I find Winston Churchill's perception [of a united Europe] a good deal more convincing and more encouraging for the interests of our nation than the nightmare image sometimes conjured up by the prime minister who seems to look out on a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to extinguish democracy, to dissolve our national identities, to lead us through the back door into a federal Europe. What kind of vision is that?
"The tragedy is -- and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people and for the prime minister herself, a very real tragedy -- that her perceived attitude toward Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation.
"We have paid heavily in the past for late starts and squandered opportunities in Europe. We dare not let that happen again."
His speech electrified the House of Commons. The Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesman, Gerald Kaufman, said, "It was the most astonishing speech I have heard in 20 years in the House of Commons."
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Social Democrats, said, "This was a devastating revelation of the divisions within the government and the personality of the prime minister."
Nominations for the Tory leadership, to be decided in a special election next month, close tomorrow. There was speculation that Mr. Heseltine, with Sir Geoffrey's support, would fight to replace Mrs. Thatcher.