LONDON -- Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd reserved the right yesterday to enter the Conservative Party leadership battle if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher falters in the first ballot Tuesday.
The only challenge Mrs. Thatcher faces in that vote is from former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, who is presenting himself as the politician best able to ensure a fourth Conservative victory in the next general election.
If Mrs. Thatcher fails to receive 214 votes from the 372 Tory members of Parliament who will pick the party's leader -- and thereby the country's prime minister -- there will be a second, and possibly third round.
Mr. Hurd, who is seen as the likeliest compromise candidate in a stalemate, was asked yesterday whether he would rule himself out of the race. He replied simply, "Against her."
This left open the possibility that if Mrs. Thatcher is so humiliated in the opening round next week that she withdraws, he might throw his hat into the ring.
Mrs. Thatcher's aides express confidence that she will win an outright victory in the first round but say she will continue to fight until the last vote if necessary. Mr. Hurd, who nominated Mrs. Thatcher for re-election, stressed yesterday that he expected the prime minister to win on the first ballot.
But he also signaled that if she was victorious, he expected her "to heal the party's wounds." This was a clear reference to her domineering style of leadership and the need for more consultative Cabinet government.