Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's fierce opposition to a federal European Community openly split her Conservative Party on Thursday with the resignation of her deputy, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the last remaining member of the team she brought into the government in 1979. Given the continuing unpopularity of Thatcher and her party in public opinion polls, the issue of whether Britain should either stay aboard or finally jump off as Europe gathers speed toward economic, monetary and political union could determine the outcome of the next British general election, which has to be called before July 1992.
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of the new Europe itself: How much individual sovereignty will the member states agree to surrender to each other and to the community's Executive Commission in Brussels? Thatcher has drawn the line at European currency union, arguing fiercely that the House of Commons would never agree to surrender to a European central bank the right to decide how many pounds should be in circulation in Britain or what they should be worth.
Howe, dismissed as Thatcher's foreign secretary in July 1989 for insisting too hard that she agree to European moves toward monetary and political union, quit on Thursday evening after a short meeting with the prime minister at 10 Downing St. He wrote a letter saying that he could no longer support Thatcher's views on this issue, which he called "crucial" to the future of the British nation.
Thatcher's reply said that their differences were not so great as he supposed, and her office said later that she had accepted his resignation "more in sorrow than in anger."
The prime minister's Conservative Party has been trailing far behind the opposition Labor Party in public opinion polls since early last year. The latest Market & Opinion Research International poll, published in The Sunday Times last weekend, showed a 16-point gap, with Labor leading by 49 to 33 percent of those surveyed.
But many British voters will not decide how to cast their ballots in the next election over the European problem. Rather, they will do so on issues like the unpopular poll tax, the per capita community charge introduced by Thatcher over the last year, and the level of mortgage payments and interest rates, which the government raised to double-digit levels late last year to combat Britain's high inflation.