LONDON -- Two former British prime ministers -- Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath -- are locked in a political war of words over which side of the Atlantic the country's best interests lie on.
And the fight is threatening their party's chances of a fourth term in office.
The Conservative Party elder statesmen are arguing over the advantages of pursuing the "special relationship" with the United States or engaging in the newer dynamic of European federalism.
Mrs. Thatcher is unreservedly pro-American, seeing the trans-Atlantic relationship as the bedrock of both international security and well-being.
Mr. Heath, who negotiated Britain's entry into the European Community in 1973, is more pro-Europe, believing that continental cooperation provides the basis for regional safety and prosperity.
The two have been at loggerheads on a personal level since Mrs. Thatcher successfully challenged Mr. Heath's leadership of the Tories in 1975, condemning him to the political wilderness.
Since she was ousted from leadership last fall to sit alongside Mr. Heath on the parliamentary back benches, their clash has grown more damaging to their party, even as it has become more equal.
Mrs. Thatcher used a trip to the United States this week to launch two attacks on European federalism, warning that it could erode the authority of Britain's Parliament and give more power to unelected officials in Brussels, Belgium -- site of the headquarters of the European Community -- than to national politicians.
Mr. Heath, in an unusually vitriolic outburst even by the standards of his enduring bitterness toward Mrs. Thatcher, accused her of "lies" and of being "so ignorant that she does not realize we have a European culture as well as individual national aspects."
For current Prime Minister John Major, the headline-hogging slinging match has been an embarrassment. "Heath blasts 'lying' Maggie," said the Daily Mail. "Ex-prime ministers shatter Tory unity," said the Times of London.
Mr. Major, who took over from Mrs. Thatcher in November, has signaled a conciliatory approach to Europe without abandoning some of Mrs. Thatcher's misgivings about creation of a European "super-state."
He told the House of Commons this week that such a "super-state" "would not be acceptable to me, not be acceptable to this House and, in my judgment, not be acceptable to this country."
But he has also made it clear that he wants to be at the heart of negotiations over construction of the new Europe, a significant shift from Mrs. Thatcher's posture.
He also has attempted to bridge interparty divisions on European policy and, until the new Thatcher-Heath confrontation, appeared to be making headway.
Inside Mr. Major's Downing Street office yesterday, a senior aide said there would be no effort to "gag" either of the former prime ministers.
"We will have to stand back and let them go at each other. We expect it to continue," said the official.
Mrs. Thatcher specifically fueled fears that the eruptions would continue when she told her New York audience that the European unity issues were so momentous that she favored "a little less silence" on her own part and a return "to full and open and free discussion."
"I have been very quiet at home, which has been a very great effort," she told an enthusiastic audience.
Her critics have accused her of breaching political etiquette by expressing such controversial views abroad.
Mr. Heath challenged her to repeat them in Parliament, where he could rebut her directly.