A Tory leader made in Hong Kong

Chris Patten is a contender. After all, he's the nearest thing the Conservative party has to a man with clean hands; Thatcherites suspect that Major may be working for a Patten succession
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The Independent Online
So the Tories' lost leader is restless. The deal won by Chris Patten on behalf of Hong Kong citizens, and the 7,000 Indians there in particular, is an awesome indicator of his influence over John Major. Headlines such as "Open invite to 2 million'' are the last thing government business managers wanted just now.

The ministerial line is that this loosening of visa policy had been going to happen all along. That wasn't my impression; I don't think it was Governor Patten's impression either. Only a few months ago, it seemed that Michael Howard had closed his mind to such a change of policy; in the Commons lobbies yesterday there were plenty of Tory MPs utterly gruntle-less about it.

Patten may not be a power in Hong Kong for much longer; but he is a power in this land. He has long acted as a partisan supporter of the Prime Minister's best self. I don't know whether Patten had to look Major in the eye and tell him that this was a matter of honour. But had he done so, the change in policy would have become inevitable.

What was almost as intriguing was Patten's unusually frank public admission about his keenness to return to British politics. Up to now he has been guarded, giving the impression that he may seek some fat-chap international job - president of the UN Cinnamon Commission - or retire to well-upholstered privacy, composing light satirical verse and sauntering through the villages of the Lot valley in the company of his good friend Jonathan Dimbleby.

The Conservative Party was never wholly convinced by this. But now that Major has done the decent thing, helping Patten to leave Hong Kong with a clearer conscience, the gossip will rise several degrees. They know what this means. Patten may yet be the next Tory leader.

He would, of course, be a different sort of Tory leader in the late Nineties than he would have been in the first part of the decade. As Conservatives at home wallow in loose talk about Asian values, here is one Tory who has actually been living there.

It has rubbed off. He is too shrewd to be taken in by the modish worship of Asia currently fashionable in London (it used to be Eastern mysticism that got people frog-eyed; now it's Eastern materialism). Patten knows that so-called "Asian values'' can produce, in practice, Victorian results - caning, corruption, child labour, and other stuff we have spent the 20th century trying to escape from. Patten also knows how widely those economies differ, and how in practice Asian states can be highly interventionist.

But he has picked up enough of the energy and scale of the Asian renaissance to change his thinking - and, in crude terms, to push it rightwards. He wants to shrink, quite drastically, the proportion of public spending taken by the state. Influenced particularly by that old Asian sage, Lord Skidelsky, he is a convert to the ''30 per cent'' state. Like most advocates of much lower public spending, Patten has been disturbingly vague about what services would be cut to get there. But Hong Kong seems to have completed a shift in his economics begun by Margaret Thatcher.

Once known as a passionate pro-European, Patten has also come out as a sceptic about the European single currency. On that, as on the size of the state, his politics have developed in parallel to the views of other old Tory leftists, such as Malcolm Rifkind and William Waldegrave.

A more telling comparison is with Kenneth Clarke, who remains a traditional welfare-statist, derisive about the possibility of driving down public spending by another quarter or so and sympathetic to a single currency.

Unlike Clarke, Patten is starting to look like the kind of Tory moderate with whom the Tory right could do business. Patten's earlier, rebuffed, call for full passport rights for all Hong Kongers has given him something to live down in Tebbit country. But that will be partly discounted as "going with the Territory'', and can now be set against his shifts on economics and Europe.

He has, in addition, one priceless asset. He has not been around. He cannot be blamed for the Government's behaviour over the Scott report, or for Black Wednesday, or anything else. After some of the grimmest years of government unpopularity in modern history, Patten is the nearest thing the Tory party has to a man with clean hands.

His political strategy for Hong Kong's handover has been bitterly criticised from inside the colony. But he was never responsible for the big policy decisions hemming him in; and a lot of the sting has been taken away by yesterday's news on visas.

This clears him to come home as a serious potential contender for the Tory leadership, missing the next election by a few months, but in time for any post-election contest. He would need Major's help with timing, and he would need to find a way of returning to Parliament. But if the Tories were by then the opposition, or had won yet another election victory, by-elections might be winnable again. For a couple of years or so, there has been gossip about a by-election involving the Kensington seat held by Patten's old admirer, Sir Nicholas Scott.

Speculation like this, chewed over in Covent Garden restaurants and among right-wing dining clubs, has led the Thatcherite wing of the party to ask, with increasing suspicion, whether John Major is working actively for a Patten succession.

I suspect that in his own quiet way he is. The two men remain confidants. They spent many private hours together this week. Patten has given long- range advice and reassurance during some of Major's lonelier passages in office. At that level in politics there is no one else, except perhaps Ian Lang, to whom the Prime Minister feels closer. No wonder Major would like him back.

The pitter-Patten of returning Governor would have a significant impact on British politics. It isn't only that Patten might prevent the Tory party falling into the hands of the right-wing "bastards''; or indeed, the passionately pro-European Ken Clarke. It's more that, as currently positioned, he offers a middle way, and therefore an alternative to the Tory civil war that has been so widely predicted.

We are running far ahead of events - though not, at a pure guess, far ahead of private conversations in the Governor's mansion in recent days. But how would the party react?

Up to now, the assumption among his potential rivals has been to dismiss Patten - too far away, too long away. And in the frantic, jealous, inward- gazing world of Westminster politics, it may seem that to be living on the edge of China is to be about as out of touch as you can get.

But the Tories at large may take a different view. Come to think of it, for a party that claims to be globalist and to see visions of the future in Asia, and which has been handicapped by the sheer dreary familiarity of its leadership, what neater answer could there be?