LONDON -- Will there be a Countess of Finchley to swell the ranks of Britain's aristocracy? And an Earl of Finchley, her son, to carry on when she is gone?
Margaret Thatcher tried yesterday to put an end to speculation seething here on the reach and grasp of her ambitions. In a letter to the Times she wrote, "I wish to make it clear that I have not sought and do not seek a hereditary peerage."
Well, that ends that. Or does it?
The Guardian, the British newspaper that pretends to speak for those strata of society supposedly antithetical to kings, queens, earls, countesses and all that ilk, wasn't satisfied. It pointed out that Mrs.Thatcher didn't say she wouldn't take the title if it were offered.
As yet it hasn't been. Which is not to say it won't be. It is all up to Prime Minister John Major to recommend her to the queen.
Will he or won't he? That is the question of the moment, and a dangerous one for Mr. Major. If he does agree to a hereditary peerage for his predecessor, he might give the lie to his repeated assertions that he wants a truly classless society.
Last June, when Mrs. Thatcher announced her retirement from the House of Commons, it was reported that she would in all likelihood go into the House of Lords with a life peerage.
But a life peerage is different from a hereditary peerage. The first endures only while the honoree does. Margaret Thatcher was a seismic force in British politics for more than a decade. Even her enemies would concede her the honor, such as it is, of sitting in the House of Lords.
But not even her political friends would be eager to see her 38-year-old son, Mark -- undistinguished, occasionally troublesome -- continue on in the same chamber, or Mark's children, and so on.
If it happens, some people fear, attempts to abolish the House of Lords altogether might be moved closer to fulfilment. The upper house wields little power and is viewed by many as an expensive anachronism.
It was the Times that reported on its front page Thursday that the way has been cleared for Mrs. Thatcher to become Countess of Finchley. The Times probably has the best contacts in the upper echelon of the British political establishment.
Most of the letters to the newspaper that followed the story were disapproving. "What a sad ending to a remarkable political career," wrote one correspondent. "It is very sad to watch Mrs. Thatcher snatch ridicule from the grasp of greatness," wrote another.