Mrs. Thatcher overshadows her successor


LONDON -- "Now, if we can," said the Downing Street aide impatiently yesterday, "let's get back to the current prime minister."

It was a cozy, background meeting between an anonymous source and the inquisitive media inside London's corridors of power.

The problem was that there was more interest in Margaret Thatcher's visit to the United States last week than there was in her successor John Major's meeting with President Bush this week.

"Former prime ministers can make these statements. The present one has to get on with working out his policies," said the aide.

Mrs. Thatcher's irritant was to state publicly that a unified Europe would be dominated by Germany. Her assertion came on the eve of a visit by Mr. Major to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the delivery of his first major speech on the Continent.

The meeting went well, and the speech signaled a new warmth in relations and a less-strident British approach to European economic and political unity.

Mr. Major is no Euro-federalist, but neither does he present British national sovereignty as the sort of unbreachable beachhead against Continental contamination that Mrs. Thatcher built it into.

Was Mr. Major incensed, as the British press had suggested, over Mrs. Thatcher's remarks?

"I don't think there is much personal friction between the two of them," said the aide, while acknowledging that the increasing political tensions between right-wing Thatcherite elements in the Conservative Party and moderate Majorites was becoming more troubling.

Mr. Major's response has been on two levels.

*On the personal level, he has sought to avoid any rancor, to make his calm the counter to her charisma, to establish his very ordinariness as a political asset, the banner of a leader committed to a "truly classless society."

*On the political level, he has been at pains to distance himself from Thatcher policy without disowning her legacy.

At home, he is preparing to dump the unpopular poll, or head, tax, the crown jewel of her third and last term.

He has also softened the edges of social policy, offering extra help to the homeless and aged.

Abroad, he has replaced confrontation with cooperation in Europe and set about establishing his own relationships with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Bush.

Mr. Major will meet Mr. Bush in Bermuda on Saturday for a review of world affairs in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war.

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