Patten keeps option open on leadership

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Chris Patten, the former Tory party chairman, yesterday fuelled speculation that he could be a future candidate for the party leadership by conspicuously refusing to rule out a return to British politics after he steps down as the last Governor of Hong Kong at the end of June 1997.

In remarks which will be interpreted as preparing the ground for a possible comeback, he told British political reporters here: "I do not want to speculate about the outcome of the next election or what I would do in certain circumstances. I just make the point... I remain interested in the issues at the centre of debate in Britain and in Europe. How could I not be? I have been professionally involved in politics since I was 21."

Mr Patten, who lost his Bath seat in the 1992 General Election, took care to preface his remarks by saying it would "not be very wise" for him to speculate in his current "non- political role" on the outcome of the election or on a future career in politics. But asked if he could envisage the circumstances in which he might resume his political career, he said: "Yes... certainly. It would be unwise for me to follow that hypothesis too far. I'm not ruling anything in or anything out."

"The Governor is believed to have made it clear to friends that he could well be interested in a British political comeback - whether or not the Tories win an election. When Mr Patten first came to Hong Kong, it was thought more likely that he might seek another post on the international stage - possibly in Europe or further afield.

While that is still possible, if Mr Major - or in the event of a defeat another leader congenial to Mr Patten - were at the head of the party, Mr Patten could well contemplate a return. And if the party were defeated in an election which did not take place until the Spring of 1997, Mr Major would only have to remain in office for a few months as leader before standing down for Mr Patten to get the chance of standing for the leadership.

There is a widespread view in the Tory party that Sir Nicholas Scott, MP for Chelsea, recently reselected for the new Kensington and Chelsea seat, and an old friend of Mr Patten's would be prepared to to give up his seat to let him fight a by- election early in the parliament.

Mr Patten is conventionally thought to be well on the left of the party, but he startled some former colleagues last year by making a speech in London, in tune with some right-wing thinking, in which he said that Britain might need a radical rethink of its public spending and should contemplate a "shrinking state" to compete with developing Asian economies.

Mr Patten is also said by some of his friends to have come to the view that enlargement is a much higher priority for Europe than further integration, and that it is highly unlikely that a single currency could be achieved by the starting date of 1 January 1999 without an unacceptable waiving of the strict Maastricht criteria.

Such a view might well make him more acceptable to the Euro-sceptics than he was when he left London. Nevertheless, since Mr Patten would not be acceptable to the party's hard right-wing, his prospects could well depend on the factional composition of the parliamentary party after the next general election.