John Major, who was endorsed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her successor, was elected Tuesday as leader of the Conservative Party and will become prime minister.

Major fell two votes short of the needed majority, but his opponents conceded defeat and Conservative Party officials declared him elected.Thatcher said she was "thrilled" by the result.

Major, 47, the Treasury chief, is the youngest person to be elected prime minister since the 19th century.

He won 185 votes, two fewer than required. Former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine had 131 votes and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had 56 votes.

Thatcher intended to submit her resignation to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace once a new leader was elected. Major would then be called to be confirmed as prime minister and first lord of the treasury.

Major was elected to Parliament in 1979, was appointed foreign secretary and then chancellor of the exchequer last year.

He moved up quickly in a five-day campaign for the leadership after Thatcher announced Thursday that she would resign rather than continue a leadership fight against Heseltine.

By the weekend, opinion polls showed that Major was nearly as highly regarded by the public as was Heseltine, who has been prominent for a decade.

Major attracted support from prominent figures on the right wing of the Conservative Party, though his friends insisted Major's own views were more liberal than many supposed.

He described himself as conservative on economic issues but liberal on social issues.

Major epitomized the self-reliant, hard-working achiever whom Thatcher encouraged. Born March 29, 1943, he was the son of a circus performer, left school at 16 and was a laborer and at one time a welfare recipient.

Major became a banker and Conservative Party activist and was elected to Parliament in the first Thatcher victory of 1979. He was appointed to a junior ministerial post in 1985, then to the No. 2 position in the Treasury in 1987.

He emerged as a possible heir-apparent when Thatcher appointed him foreign secretary in July 1989 and then chancellor of the exchequer three months later.

He inherits a party and a government that have been torn by controversy over European policy and local taxes and depressed after months of lagging behind the opposition Labor Party in opinion polls.

The government has until mid-1992 to call an election. Recent opinion polls, however, suggested that any new leader would greatly enhance Tory popularity, and Major was rated as favorably as Heseltine.

Major has indicated he would review the widely hated "poll tax," which replaced the property tax with a flat charge against all adults, no matter how wealthy.

He entered the leadership race jointly with Hurd, whose position as foreign secretary appears secure.

The son of a trapeze artist with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, Major grew up in working-class Brixton. He left school at age 16 and spent time on the dole before working on construction sites. He finally landed a job in banking and worked his way to the top.

Major enjoyed a meteoric rise to political fortune since Thatcher settled on him as her successor in the early 1980s.

Although Major denied he was in the pocket of the iron-willed Thatcher, saying he was not "a son of Thatcher," he picked up votes from many who were dismayed to see her go.

It was Major's humble background that gave him appeal. Thatcher has called him "a true man of the people."

He never went to college, unlike the other Conservative leadership candidates, but worked his way up in the banking profession and in politics.

Major served in local government from 1968 to 1971. After receiving a series of low-level posts, he was made chief aide to Chancellor Nigel Lawson in 1987.

He has made a name for himself as defender of Thatcher's views on economic union with Europe, proposing an alternative "hard ECU" solution to monetary union that was perceived by many as foot-dragging.

But Major has distanced himself cautiously from Thatcher on the issue of the poll tax, promising to listen to suggestions for change.