LONDON — Senior Cabinet members have taken the unusual step of briefing British newspapers on their fears that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II are headed for a public rift over Britain's South African policy.
In an almost unprecedented move, a number of ministers were quoted anonymously in British national newspapers Wednesday as saying that the monarch and the prime minister are headed for a clash unless Thatcher agrees to sanctions against Pretoria. The carefully concerted leaks, almost identically phrased, appeared in five papers, four sympathetic to the government.
Thatcher has said that negotiation, and not strong economic sanctions, is the way to persuade South Africa's white-minority government to dismantle apartheid.
Queen Elizabeth is widely assumed to fear the breakup of the Commonwealth, the 49-nation grouping of Britain and former British colonies and dominions, unless Thatcher backs sanctions.
Boycott of Games
Many newspapers reported that the queen is alarmed at a spreading boycott of the Commonwealth Games, due to begin next week in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Thatcher, though eager to avoid public disagreement with the queen, an almost unheard of political taboo in Britain, is seen as openly courting a dispute with Commonwealth countries.
Five black African Commonwealth nations have already said they will boycott the games over the sanctions issue and more are expected to follow suit. On Wednesday, Malaysia became the first non-African country to join in the protest.
Ghana, which joined Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in the boycott, has hinted that it is considering leaving the Commonwealth altogether.
"Britain's attitude does not encourage us to stay in the Commonwealth," Foreign Affairs Secretary Obed Asamoah said.
Commonwealth officials quoted by the Press Assn., Britain's domestic news agency, have indicated that the queen would intervene to act as mediator between Thatcher and six Commonwealth representatives meeting in London next month. She has already delayed the start of her annual Scottish vacation, which would have coincided with the meeting.
Ties to Third World
The queen sees the grouping as a vital bond between the industrialized nations and the Third World.
Thatcher repeated to Parliament on Tuesday that she will not support full economic sanctions against Pretoria, declaring again that they would only cause misery to the black majority.
"A constitutional crisis now seems imminent unless the prime minister relents from her stubborn stance," said Labor foreign affairs spokesman George Foulkes in a television interview.
"She is out of step with every other Commonwealth leader, increasingly isolated from her Cabinet colleagues. . . . She is arrogant in her certainty that she alone knows best.
"The queen is being put in an increasingly embarrassing position by the prime minister's obstinacy, and the Commonwealth Games are sliding into utter shambles."