LONDON -- Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suffered a possibly fatal political blow yesterday when she failed to win outright the battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
The inconclusive election result left her future on the line, her party deeply divided and her government in turmoil.
The beleaguered prime minister failed by just four votes to get the 56-vote majority she needed under party rules to defeat challenger Michael Heseltine in the first round. Mrs. Thatcher won 204 votes, her opponent 152, with 16 abstentions.
Meanwhile yesterday, the opposition Labor Party introduced a motion of no confidence in the government. Deputy Labor leader Roy Hattersley said, "Tonight, Britain is effectively leaderless." The motion will be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow.
Labor leader Neil Kinnock called for a general election, saying, "This vote makes it clear beyond question that the government is deeply divided and incurably disabled.
"It is unfit to rule and should now subject itself to the judgment of the British people."
The second ballot will be held Tuesday, after a week of gloves-off campaigning. Other contenders can enter the fray, or one of the current contenders may drop out.
ZTC "The result was as bad as it could be for the party as a whole and gives our opponents another wonderful week of watching us divide ourselves," said Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson, a loyal Thatcher supporter.
Mrs. Thatcher, in Paris for a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, tried to put an end to any speculation about her intentions by announcing that she would stay in the race. Minutes after the result was made known, she came out of the British Embassy where she was staying and interrupted a British Broadcasting Corp. journalist making a live broadcast on the steps outside.
"I am disappointed that it was not quite enough to win on the first ballot," she told the startled journalist. "I confirm it is my intention to let my name go forward for a second ballot."
Soon after, Mr. Heseltine came out of his London home and confirmed that he, too, would not be withdrawing.
"I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my parliamentary colleagues who in such large measure have given me their support," he said. "I will allow my name to go forward into the second round."
In the second round, only a simple majority is needed for victory. If no candidate gets this, a third ballot will be held two days later.
With dismayed Conservative members of Parliament now anxious to unite the party and some believing that the prime minister, her credibility fatally damaged, is likely to lose support during the week, the question now is whether Mrs. Thatcher's close colleagues and friends will persuade her to stand down to let a compromise candidate step forward.
Cabinet colleagues, including Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, are reluctant to run against her in a leadership contest. Either would, however, be a popular choice with the party and are widely seen as conciliators capable of bringing together the party's two wings.
It was a day of mounting drama at Westminster as the 372 Conservative members of Parliament entitled to vote for a leader made their way to the oak-paneled Committee Room 12, where they cast their vote.
The tension grew after the 6 p.m. deadline came and went, with the votes being counted behind closed doors deep in the Palace of Westminster. When the result was announced just after 6:30 p.m., Parliament members seemed shocked at the blow they had inflicted on their leader and their party.