LONDON — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came under mounting political pressure Monday as the storm that broke over her Conservative government last week with the resignation of Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine refused to abate.
After attempting to defend the government in heated parliamentary debate, Thatcher's secretary of trade and industry, Leon Brittan, was also caught up in the controversy. He was accused of the serious offense of misleading the House of Commons and forced to apologize.
Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Thatcher is guilty of a "craven evasion of her duties" for refusing to explain to Parliament in person the events surrounding Heseltine's departure from the Cabinet and Heseltine's subsequent attack on her rule.
"She can run but she can't hide," Kinnock said, as Thatcher deferred to Brittan for an explanation of the government's position in the affair.
At one point, Heseltine, who remains a Conservative member of Parliament, joined with the opposition in the attack on the government.
With a parliamentary majority of 139 seats and national elections probably 18 months away, Thatcher's government is in no danger of collapse as a result of the Heseltine incident. But its dramatic nature, and the severity of the personal attack on Thatcher by a former senior minister of her Cabinet, have caused her deep embarrassment and placed her, for the moment at least, on the defensive politically.
There has been little peace for Thatcher since Heseltine gathered up his papers and stalked out of a Cabinet meeting last Thursday in the heat of a disagreement over how a financially ailing defense contractor should be rescued from insolvency.
Heseltine, a passionate advocate of European cooperation in high-technology military projects, had helped to organize a European consortium that bid for a 30% share of the firm, Westland PLC, Britain's only producer of military helicopters.
Publicly, Thatcher has insisted that Westland, as a private company, should choose the rescue formula its board of directors regards as holding out the best prospect for commercial success. But many believe that privately she supports an offer made by a group headed by United Technologies, an American firm, which has also put forth a bid to buy 30% of Westland.
Brittan has publicly backed the United Technologies bid.
'A Constitutional Outrage'
In his resignation statement last Thursday, Heseltine accused Thatcher of preventing discussion of the issue within the Cabinet, of engaging in arrogant behavior and of misleading the Westland directors of the consequences of accepting the United Technologies bid. Later, he continued his criticism, calling her behavior "a constitutional outrage."
He accused Brittan of trying to coerce the head of a major British company into withdrawing from the European consortium. It was this accusation that flared in Monday's debate, and it has brought severe pressure to bear on Brittan.
In his statment Monday, Brittan denied that he had attempted to force the chief executive officer of British Aerospace to withdraw from the European group.
"It is quite untrue that I gave any suggestion that they should withdraw or that their participation was against the national interest," he told the House of Commons.
But after denying under questioning from opposition members and from Heseltine that he had received a letter from the British Aerospace chairman containing its version of the Westland question, Thatcher's office suddenly admitted that such a letter did exist.
And under severe pressure from the opposition, Brittan was forced to return to Parliament late Monday and apologize to his colleagues.
Call for Resignation
Misleading Parliament is considered extremely serious in British politics, and some opposition politicians promptly called for Brittan's resignation.
Monday's events have further embarrassed Thatcher and damaged one of her leading Cabinet ministers. Thatcher herself will be in the hot seat today in Parliament's twice-weekly question time, at which the prime minister must answer questions put by any member of the House.
The opposition indicated it would continue pressing the Westland affair. Kinnock called for a full-scale debate on the issue Wednesday, which is one of 20 days in the present parliamentary session devoted to subjects of the opposition's choosing.
As the political debate over Westland intensified, the company's board of directors postponed until Friday an extraordinary shareholders meeting, which had been scheduled for today, to vote on the board's recommendation to accept the United Technologies bid.
The board chairman, John Cuckney, said the postponement was decided on because increased interest in the vote requires a larger place for the meeting. Others believe it was because of doubts that the American bid would be approved by the necessary 75%.