LONDON -- Margaret Thatcher's ordeal by a thousand undercuts, currently on stage in the House of Commons directed by former defense secretary Michael Heseltine with a supporting cast of conservative members, was more about ego than ECUs (European Community Units). A canny observer of the British scene notes that she simply "made them mad," and that there is some not so subtle anti-feminism going on in the "old boys club." (Men on the outside of the club network do not seem to mind her mannerisms so much.)

"She has been asked to soften her tone and ameliorate her style since she was in political nappies. The effect of such advice has been zero," scolds the lofty Times. The prime minister has not been traditionally easy on egos; the descriptive term used when she vented her frustration or anger is that she has "handbagged" the person in question. The phraseology itself speaks volumes. Would an angry man be said to have billfolded someone? History is full of the revenge of the humiliated or the envious; Richard III or Iago, for instance, and there is the feeling that Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine found a convenient cloak for their disgruntlement in Thatcher's visceral reluctance to join in the European monetary system, and their dagger was her lack of diplomatic (ladylike?) language and deportment.

Geoffrey Howe, her former deputy prime minister, resigned and delivered to Parliament a speech much like Antony's funeral oration of Caesar. The only problem this time was the leader was not quite dead. She was, however, mortally wounded. Resentment against her "never give a {sic} inch" style, her confrontational spirit and the hated poll tax were the real instruments of her undoing. Britons just simply do not harbor that many warm and fuzzy feelings for Europe or long for a currency in common with ancient foes. Referring to common currency supporters as being in "cloud coo-coo land" did her no substantive harm with the ordinary voter. It did her harm only in the intemperate nature of her language.

What are the reasons for ditching the prime minister? asked The Spectator. "So far at least, little of substance has been offered for a coup d'etat. This is not South America, after all." The prime minister vowed to fight on: "I fight to win." But the ranks of the faithful receded into the mist like ghost troops. Thatcher won the first round of voting clearly but without the necessary majority; it was thought she would go on to win in Tuesday's vote.

The mood changed. Members may not want Heseltine to replace her, but by voting for a weakened Thatcher, their own elections stood at risk against a strengthened Labor Party. Newspapers, once supportive, reversed field and called for her to step down and open up that field to a stop Heseltine move. "The fear that she instills in colleagues has given way to a still greater fear, the fear of going on with her, hitched to a chariot of disaster," wrote Peter Jenkins in The Independent. In resigning, Thatcher has performed the final loyal party act, although one suspects it went very much against her instincts and intellect. "She would prefer to go down blazing like a longboat in a Viking funeral," wrote the Daily Mail.

By standing down, her colleagues have a chance to route Heseltine, a prospect that would undoubtly give her some small pleasure. We are watching high drama here. The scene: the siege of the hero, as electric as any in Shakespeare. The players just happen to be on the floor of the House of Commons and at No. 10 Downing Street instead of on the stage of the Globe Theater. Whatever the resolution on Tuesday -- in favor of a new candidate such as Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd or Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major or for challenger Michael Heseltine -- the Tory party is damaged and depressed. The political drama sells papers; the human tragedy stirs hearts. The ambush succeeded.

The lady's intransigence may have brought her down, but her valiance and brilliance will haunt the world stage like a proud ghost. Question Time in the House of Commons will never be the same.

The writer is a contributing editor to the Washington Journalism Review.