Major gives backing to comeback by Patten

Homecoming: High-level return likely for Hong Kong governor
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Indy Politics

Political Editor

John Major has given his full backing to the idea of Chris Patten, the former Tory party chairman, returning to British politics as soon as possible after he steps down as governor of Hong Kong at the end of June next year.

The Prime Minister is eager to see Mr Patten, who lost his Bath seat to the Liberal Democrats in the 1992 general election and is one of Mr Major's closest friends in politics, back in the Tory ranks at the highest level.

The clear backing from Mr Major for a Patten comeback will intensify speculation at Westminster that the Prime Minister sees him as a credible heir-apparent. Mr Major who has the highest regard for Mr Patten and continues to value his political advice, is now clearly hoping that he will seek to re-enter the Commons through a by-election next year.

Mr Patten's job in Hong Kong ends two months after the last possible date for a general election and he has unequivocally ruled out leaving before then.

Since Mr Patten's remarks last weekend, it has emerged that after the 1992 election he rejected the offer of a seat in the Lords, coupled with a senior cabinet job. Mr Major underlined his admiration for Mr Patten at that time by offering the former Tory chairman three options: an immediate Cabinet post in the Lords, the promise of one as soon as he could win a by-election or the governorship of Hong Kong.

Mr Patten swiftly came to the conclusion that he wanted to go to Hong Kong. The implication of Mr Patten's weekend comments is that five years later he will be much more inclined to go down the by-election route as a means of regaining Cabinet office.

Mr Major was more pleased than surprised at Mr Patten's disclosure on Sunday that he is seriously considering a political comeback when his term of office ends on 1 July 1997. The two men had plenty of opportunity to discuss the matter during the Prime Minister's weekend visit to Hong Kong.

If the Tories won the general election, Mr Patten would certainly be in line for one of the two or three most senior Cabinet posts as soon as he entered the Commons. He would provide a strong bulwark of support for Mr Major - especially against the right - and would also emerge as a strong future candidate for the leadership whenever that vacancy occurred. But it also raises the prospect that if the Tories are defeated, Mr Patten could emerge as the Prime Minister's preferred successor. Mr Major could ensure that Mr Patten was a candidate by not standing down until the former party chairman had secured a seat.

Although closely identified with the Tory left, Mr Patten's political stance has been repositioned since he went to Hong Kong in two ways which could make him more welcome to the centre right. He has raised the prospect of "shrinking the state" - and public spending with it - to compete with Asian economies. He is also reliably said to have become much more sceptical about further European integration and a successful single currency.