LONDON -- At a dinner party in Downing Street for Conservative parliamentary whips in 1984, Margaret Thatcher found herself in serious policy argument with a young politician she hardly knew.
There was a furious exchange. One of those present recalled yesterday, "His colleagues were almost lying on the floor under the table, hacking at his shins to shut him up."
After the dinner, the guests left, saying, "He's had it now."
But Margaret Thatcher likes an argument, and she liked John Major.
After their dinner-table clash, she decided to send him to the Department of Health and Social Security, the ministry in which she had first served 23 years earlier. "She believes you are not really a politician in this country until you learn how the social security system ticks," one of her aides said this week.
John Major was on the political fast track, perhaps the unlikeliest of candidates for high office in a political party traditionally associated with the landed gentry and social grandees.
Mr. Major was the fourth child of a vaudeville actor and circus trapeze artist who turned to making plastic garden gnomes when his stage career burned out. His father, Tom Major, was 68 when he was born. His mother, Gwendoline Minny, was 44.
He was born in the Surrey suburb of Cheam and attended the local primary school before progressing to a private high school, to which his hard-pressed parents sent him in a secondhand blazer. He was a mediocre student and left school at 16.
His father's gnome-making business failed, and the family eventually was forced to move to the scruffy, working-class London suburb of Brixton.
He once described the experience this way: "We moved into one of those terrible old big houses. . . . We stayed there in two rooms at the very top of that house for five years.
"The gas stove was on the landing at the top of the stairs. I slept in a bunk bed in the same room as my father while my mother and sister slept in the other room. There we were, crowded into two rooms with the family dog and the hamster."
The young Major became a clerk, then a laborer, and was unemployed for nine months. He applied to be a London bus conductor but failed the entrance examination because he could not add and subtract fast enough.
It was during this unhappy period that a Conservative campaigner knocked on the door of the family's apartment in Brixton and persuaded the idle teen-ager to attend a meeting of the local Young Conservatives.
In the bleak surroundings of a sparse committee room, Mr. Major discovered a new passion: politics. He was 16. He has explained that despite his working-class background, he never was attracted to socialism. Left-wing politics, he thought, focused "on the way you stayed in difficulties, not the way you escaped from difficulties."
His escape came after some advice from a local party organizer. She told him that if he really wanted to make his way in the political world, he needed to succeed in business first. He left his dead-end job as a clerk with the
London Electricity Board and joined a bank. He took a basic banking course, passed with honors and was recruited by Standard Chartered, a prestigious finance house. He was 20.
All the time, he pursued his interest in local politics, winning a seat on the local Lambeth council when he was 25. He progressed through the local party hierarchy until he became chairman of the Brixton Conservative Association in 1970.
He also was making his mark at Standard Chartered. After a stint in Nigeria, he joined its team of advisers to British companies wanting to invest overseas.
In 1970, John Major married Norma Johnson. (They have a son and daughter.) All the time he pursued his political interest, moving from the local to the national scene, unsuccessfully seeking a seat in Parliament in the two rapid elections of 1974.
In 1979, the year Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister, he was elected to the House of Commons. After his work in the Department of Health and Social Security, he went to the Treasury. Next he was the surprise appointment to replace the demoted Sir Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary. He had no foreign policy experience, but Mrs. Thatcher wanted to "broaden his experience."
He was on more familiar turf when she chose him three months later to be chancellor of the exchequer in place of Nigel Lawson.
"Major the Meteoric" was the Daily Mail's headline over his election as prime minister. "Major: the unknown prime minister," said the Times.
Those who had been at the Downing Street dinner in 1984 were less surprised.
"He had been touched. He was anointed," said a Cabinet colleague yesterday.