The Conservative Party staggered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with lukewarm support Tuesday, forcing her into a second round of balloting in a fight for leadership of party and country.
Thatcher fell two votes short of a quick defeat in the sternest challenge of her 11 1/2 years as party leader. She rejected calls by some to step down and vowed to battle on in another round of voting next Tuesday.Former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, smiling and looking very much like the winner after the vote by his Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons, also declared himself ready for round two. HeseltineThatcher
``It is my intention to let my name go forward for the second ballot,' a calm and determined Thatcher said at the British Embassy in Paris.
She was there for a summit on European security.
If Thatcher loses the leadership of the party, she would be expected to step down as prime minister. The Conservatives have a 98-seat majority in the 650-seat House.
The opposition Labor Party moved to capitalize on the turmoil in Conservative ranks by introducing a motion of no-confidence that is likely to come to a vote before Tuesday. The motion would bring down the government if it carries.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, in Paris, noted that Thatcher has been the closest ally of the Reagan and Bush administrations, but said the vote was an internal British matter.
``We feel very positive about our relationship with her and with that country,' Fitzwater said. ``But beyond that, we really can't have any comment.'
Thatcher, the longest-serving prime minister in Europe, has suffered a loss in popularity because of a local services tax widely viewed as favoring the rich. Her government also has been blamed for high inflation and high interest rates. The Conservatives have trailed Labor in opinion polls for 16 months.
Heseltine also focused his campaign on Thatcher's attitude toward Europe, which has caused strains within her party.
Heseltine, standing hand-in-hand with his wife, Anne, outside their home, told reporters: ``I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my parliamentary colleagues who in such large measure have given me their support.'
Heseltine forced the issue by winning enough votes to deny Thatcher a first-ballot victory in an unprecedented ballot among the 372 Conservative members of Parliament.
Because 16 lawmakers abstained, Thatcher needed 206 of the remaining votes, which would have given her a winning margin of 15 percent out of the total 372-member Conservative caucus, as party rules stipulate. She received 204 votes to Heseltine's 152.
If necessary, a third and final ballot would be Nov. 29.