LONDON — After nearly eight years in power, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prepares to enter the final year of her second term with a firm grip and an unwavering direction that those in scandal-troubled Washington would find it hard to recall.
With last year's Westland helicopter affair now fading from the national consciousness and Thatcher holding a small but consistent lead in the public opinion polls, speculation as to the timing of her third general election increasingly dominates the front pages.
A booming stock market, talk of an income tax cut in next week's budget speech and the expected windfall from her scheduled high-profile visit to Moscow later this month lead many to believe the 61-year-old prime minister may seize the moment and call an election this spring.
Others, pointing to her slim 1 to 2 percentage point lead in the polls and the drubbing of her Conservative Party's candidate in a recent important parliamentary by-election, argue that she has little incentive to risk her existing 138-seat majority in the House of Commons. They predict that she will wait until the autumn or possibly even early next year to call the election.
Thatcher must face the electorate at some point before her five-year term expires in June of next year, but tradition and political strategy suggest an earlier date.
Should she win a third term, she would within a matter of months eclipse Henry Asquith as the longest-serving prime minister of this century. At present, the smart money is on Thatcher. Britain's largest chain of betting outlets, Ladbroke, quotes her at 2-7, the odds-on favorite.
For Thatcher, those odds represent a remarkable revival from a low point one year ago, when efforts to rescue the Westland Helicopter Co. from bankruptcy erupted into a major Cabinet split, triggered the resignation of two senior Cabinet ministers and brought the scent of scandal to the prime minister's own office.
Her allowing U.S. warplanes to take off from English bases when they raided the Libyan mainland last April drew severe criticism from the British public. That response, added to the Westland scandal and nagging economic woes, caused her Conservative Party to fall as many as 18 points behind the main opposition Labor Party.
A year later, Thatcher's odds have changed, and for President Reagan's Administration, there would be undoubted advantages if she crowns this comeback with a third electoral victory.
A shared political philosophy and six years of overlapping leadership have made Thatcher the President's closest, most trusted confidant among America's European allies.
Under her leadership, Britain has frequently stood closer to Washington than to its European neighbors on important issues, such as the American raid against Libya.
Stand on Defense
By contrast, Labor, led by Neil Kinnock, has pinned its colors to a highly controversial defense policy that calls for scrapping Britain's nuclear deterrent and demanding the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear forces, which have been based in the country since the 1950s.
Although the goal of a non-nuclear Britain is said to be one of Kinnock's most deep-seated personal commitments, his enthusiasm has so far not been shared by the electorate. Pollsters cite public concern about Labor's defense policy as a key reason why it trailed the Tories in recent surveys.
"Defense is definitely an issue that works against Labor," said Robert Worcester, managing director of Market & Opinion Research International.
The sudden prospect of a Soviet-American arms control agreement on medium-range nuclear missiles could add to Thatcher's stature, sending an implicit message that tough bargaining with Moscow of the type she advocates can result in fewer missiles than Kinnock's plan for unilateral disarmament. Kinnock's difficulty in controlling Labor's extreme left wing is also seen as a liability.
Last week's upset result in the Greenwich parliamentary by-election, where an extreme left Labor candidate lost a seat that the party had held since World War II, underscored both the power of the left to select candidates as well as the public's rejection of the ideology championed by such candidates.
Kinnock, who has tried to rein in this element of the party, earlier this week insisted that the influence of left-wing radicals was marginal.
"They do not represent the policies or the character of a party of over 300,000," he said.
But some believe that the stunning victory at Greenwich of Social Democratic Party candidate Rosie Barnes, a political unknown, may be potentially more damaging to Thatcher than Kinnock.
Not only did Barnes crush the Labor favorite and beat the Tory candidate into a poor third place, but her victory also breathed new life into the flagging Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance, which is likely to take far more votes from the Tories than Labor.
"After Greenwich, it's almost inconceivable Mrs. Thatcher will go (for an election) this spring," predicted pollster Worcester.
Whatever the timing, a sense of anticipation has already gathered over the political landscape and the intensity of debate has sharpened.
Last week, Thatcher's junior health minister, Edwina Currie, launched an exceptionally personal attack on the Labor leader, charging that party policy was being dictated by Kinnock's wife, Glenys--a reference to her strong anti-nuclear views.
Kinnock responded hotly that Thatcher's policies were wrecking the country.
"She's absolutely bloody lethal and has been since Day 1," he said.
When a group of Tory members of Parliament tried to submit a motion in the House of Commons condemning Kinnock as inexperienced, hostile to the monarchy and a "despicable failure," cooler heads finally prevailed as the parliamentary whips from both parties agreed to a truce.