Britain's Conservative Party, torn by the self-inflicted loss of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, saw its fortunes soar Saturday as soundings indicated that any of the three candidates for party leader would run ahead of the Labor Party if national elections were held today.
A poll conducted by the ITN/Harris organization showed that the Conservatives would run 10 percentage points ahead of the Labor Party with Tory member of Parliament Michael Heseltine as leader, running against Labor's Neil Kinnock.
The opinion sampling showed that with Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major as leader, the Tories would outdistance Labor by 7 points, and under Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the margin would still be 4 points.
The three candidates are campaigning for the votes of Conservative members of Parliament for the post of party leader--and automatic succession to the prime minister's office.
It is a close race, with only the 372 House of Commons members eligible to cast ballots. Political observers say it is not certain that any single candidate will get an absolute majority of 187 votes needed to win Tuesday.
Before Thatcher unexpectedly announced her resignation Thursday, the Labor Party held a 16-point lead over Conservatives in the same opinion poll.
Other opinion polls to be published in London's Sunday newspapers are expected to show that Heseltine is the most popular prospective new prime minister in the country, running ahead of the other contenders as well as Kinnock.
Most analysts said that as of Saturday, Heseltine and Major were running neck-and-neck with Hurd slightly behind. All three will appear on TV interview shows today, attempting to rally votes of fellow members of Parliament.
On Saturday, Tory party strategists were also buoyed by the performance of the London stock exchange, which soared at Friday's close because of hopes for closer British cooperation with Europe as the Thatcher era ends.
British investors were expressing confidence that either Heseltine, 57, Hurd, 60, or Major, 47, would be good news for business and would forge better ties with Europe and reduce interest rates.
The developments represented a sudden reversal in outlook for the Labor Party, which had been riding a wave of popularity, due in part to general unhappiness with Thatcher's style and some of her policies.
One reflection of Labor's new uneasiness occurred Saturday when Gerald Kaufman, the Labor shadow foreign secretary, called all three of the Tory leadership candidates "unprincipled poltroons."
Kaufman complained that during the last election campaign in 1987, Heseltine, Hurd and Major all supported a proposed flat tax on individuals that is now in effect here. The measure, which the British call a "poll tax" although it has nothing to do with voting, assesses a fixed levy yearly on all adults over 18. The tax is determined by the communities in which taxpayers live and does not take into account either their incomes or property holdings. It is assessed as a substitute for property taxes.
The tax has proven vastly unpopular and was a major factor in Thatcher's loss of popularity.
Labor campaign coordinator John Cunningham declared that if the Conservatives are so confident that they can win, they ought to call a national election soon. But the Tories, with a comfortable majority of nearly 100 votes in the House of Commons, need not call a new general election for another 18 months.
By then, according to Tory strategists, the party hopes to have reduced inflation, cut mortgage and interest rates, healed its wounds and presented the nation with a unified, experienced party.
Moreover, the fact that all three Tory leadership hopefuls have called for a "review" of the poll tax means that they may eventually be able to defuse the single most important domestic issue that Labor currently dominates.
According to Tory tacticians Saturday, the Conservative Party will represent itself as the one that has governed Britain exclusively for the past 11 1/2 years, while Labor opposition leaders such as Kinnock have had no experience in governing.
The irony is that Conservative members of Parliament, who achieved that record under Thatcher's leadership, were those who turned on their leader last week, deciding that she had become a liability and pressing for her resignation.
The forced resignation has caused a great deal of resentment in Tory ranks. Many had wanted to fight the next election under Thatcher's banner.
But that resentment is likely to rub off on only one of the three candidates for Thatcher's leadership post: Heseltine, who led the challenge against Thatcher, an act regarded by some Tories as rank treachery.
Charges and countercharges are now flying among the three candidates and their backers as they solicit votes from fellow members of Parliament.
Hurd and Major each have the proclaimed backing of six fellow Cabinet members, while Heseltine has no announced support within the Cabinet.
On Saturday, however, Heseltine picked up two important endorsements.
Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation last month as deputy prime minister began the chain of events that led to Thatcher's downfall, announced his support of Heseltine's candidacy. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson also announced his backing for Heseltine.
Howe declared that Heseltine would be the most popular candidate with the country at large, particularly with independent voters, and that he offers the party its best chance for a "fresh start."
So far neither Hurd nor Major, both close to Thatcher, have criticized Heseltine, and each of the three has announced that he would invite the other two to join his Cabinet if he wins the leadership campaign.
This was a rare show of unity in British politics and indicated that Kinnock and Labor would not be faced with the kind of divided, unruly and unhappy party that has often characterized the Tories in recent years under Thatcher.
For her part, Thatcher was spending what may be her last weekend at Chequers, the prime minister's official country residence. She has ordered the movers to begin taking her possessions from No. 10 Downing St., the prime minister's official home and office.
She will not actually move out, however, until a new Tory leader is chosen and is then named prime minister by Queen Elizabeth II.
If Tuesday's balloting does not deliver a majority to a single candidate, another vote will be taken Thursday. At that vote, in the absence of a majority, the third-place finisher's votes will be split between the front-runners on the basis of expressed second preferences, creating a winner.