PROFILE: Chris Patten: Another job for Mr Fixit

The hard-nosed diplomat relishes the impossible mission - and reforming the RUC won't be his last
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The Independent Online
Chris Patten is making waves again. Following the publication of his report on the RUC, the Ulster Unionists are furious, Sinn Fein is wary, the SDLP is pretty pleased. Ministers wait nervously to see whether the Patten-induced storm will subside. When he launched his ambitious review last week, Patten described his task as more challenging even than his stormy governorship of Hong Kong or his chairmanship of a divided Conservative Party.

Patten's comparisons with other stages of his career serve as a reminder of his unique staying power. He has been an influential figure at the centre of government for the best part of two decades. Out of government, some of his former Conservative colleagues write trouble-making memoirs and deliver lectures. Others dream of future glory and one even confesses to a homosexual past in pursuit of lost power. Only Patten is still shaping the pattern of events in a significant way.

He has never really been out of power since becoming a junior minister in the early 1980s. Losing his Bath constituency to the Liberal Democrats in the 1992 election was a bitter personal blow, but a mere interlude in his career as an important political player. Within hours of his defeat in Bath, the re-elected Prime Minister, John Major, offered him the Governorship of Hong Kong. Once he had presided, controversially, over the transfer of Britain's last colony to China Tony Blair wooed him assiduously. Having asked him to conduct the review of the RUC, Blair manoeuvred to ensure that Patten, rather than William Hague's own choice, became a European Commissioner. Hague wanted to give the job to the former chief whip and largely anonymous Alistair Goodlad. Blair sought a classier act and had no doubt that Patten should get the job.

If politics is a marathon, Patten has displayed the astute timing and staying power of a gold medallist. No one can accuse him of rising like a meteor early in his political career only to fall away equally as dramatically. But the qualities which have enabled him to survive at the top for so long are different to the ones with which he is often associated. Compared with most politicians he is portrayed as an almost saintly figure. He is seen as witty, principled, clever, decent, religious, a Christian Democrat who can take on a party hurtling towards the wilder fringes of right- wing politics. The reality is more complex.

Patten, at 55, is capable of being as ruthless, thuggish, pragmatic and vain as anyone else with ambitions (and Patten behind the laid-back dem- eanour is deeply ambitious). Nor is it possible to discern through his speeches, pamphlets - in his early days he was an eager pamphleteer, though nowadays he dismisses most of them as "unreadable"- and actions a clear and coherent political philosophy.

Patten was pragmatic enough to introduce the poll tax as Environment Secretary, his first cabinet post after a long wait. From the beginning he knew it would be a political disaster, but carried out the deed, winning plaudits in the media and the Conservative Party for his skilful presentation. Given the scale of the catastrophe, he should have moved heaven and earth to prevent the disaster from happening, rather than making the policy sound more palatable than it could ever be.

He made some attempts to persuade Margaret Thatcher of the imminent explosion. Privately he would tell friends over dinner, his head looking downwards at the table in melancholy exasperation: "I go to Margaret Hilda to show her the poll tax levels that people will be paying and she doesn't believe me." He often referred to Thatcher as "Margaret Hilda" in a way which conveyed his despair at her leadership and a hint that he found her faintly ridiculous.

The episode illustrates why Patten has endured for so long. No blame was ever damagingly attached to him for the most disastrous policy in 18 years of government. Charmingly and with humour he made clear privately that he disapproved of the policy and the Prime Minister pioneering it. This was enough to ensure that when the post-mortems were carried out, Patten's fingerprints were invisible.

As party chairman he was even more brutally pragmatic. He metamorphosed from the civilised minister praised by overseas charities, to the Central Office bully who started to deploy terms like "double whammy", "gobsmacked" and "porkies". But the stereotypes were overplayed. As a junior minister he had a thuggish side, displaying an occasional short fuse with officials and intolerance of those with less obvious ability than himself. As party chairman the brutish image was comical rather than effective. Indeed the Conservative election campaign in 1992 was often shambolic. The party's easy victory was brought about more by the voters' mistrust of Labour than as a result of its own campaign. Patten was not an especially good chairman.

Nor is it possible to claim that he is the party's great philosopher king. There is no question that he disapproved of Thatcher's excesses, but he never offered a credible alternative. He was closely involved in John Major's early attempts as Prime Minister to devise a more compassionate Conservatism, with policies such as the Citizen's Charter and a more positive approach to Europe, but this hardly amounted to a new political philosophy. What is more, since his stint in Hong Kong he has become a convert to much lower levels of public spending. He made a speech towards the end of his tenure as governor about governing with a much lighter touch, based on his experiences of the Asian economies. Thatcher would have agreed with every word of it. Similarly on Europe he has recently sounded more sceptical. Yet last year he signed a letter, published in a newspaper, with other Tory dignitaries, opposing Hague's policy on a single currency.

But pragmatism and ruthlessness are essential qualities for surviving at the highest levels. While they take the shine off the more glowing portraits of Patten they do not detract from his qualities as a politician. He is capable of being charming, witty and thoughtful, qualities not easily detected on the Conservative front bench.

Even Margaret Thatcher could not ignore him when he arrived in the Commons in 1979 in the election in which she became Prime Minister. Relations were never especially good, not least because she had ostracised him in the years leading up to that election when he was the party's head of research. Thatcher had no time for Patten's centrist ideas as she stiffened her ideological resolve with more congenial political soulmates. But when he became an MP she often sought Patten's help when writing her speeches. Although she left him toiling in junior ministries for much longer than some of his talented contemporaries he still left his mark, impressing especially when a Northern Ireland minister and as minister for Overseas Aid. Although she gave him a cabinet job, the Thatcherites never took to him. When he lost his Bath seat some of her entourage cheered as the result was declared.

Thatcher's prime ministerial successors have taken a different view. Major valued him so highly that he attributed some of his later disasters to Patten's absence. In Jonathan Dimbleby's book on Patten's stint in Hong Kong the author reveals that Major pleaded with the Governor to return to Britain and become Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, along with a peerage. The offer was made in the summer of 1994 when Major was going through one of his near fatal political crises. Patten turned it down on the grounds of uncompleted business in Hong Kong.

Blair is being generous with his patronage for a variety of reasons. It serves his wider purpose to have charismatic Tories in his big tent. But there is more than realpolitik in the relationship. Blair recognises in Patten someone like himself who can transcend party ties and make a wider appeal. The two are also committed Christians and have both said that their faith is central to their politics. Unlike Blair, Patten is a Catholic.

But Patten's appeal to Blair goes further than that. He is a heavyweight capable of delivering. In Hong Kong he made some mistakes, playing to the gallery and underestimating the degree to which his demo- cratic reforms would cause fury in China and among senior Sinologists in the Foreign Office. But he managed a smooth handover of power with most of his reforms in place. There are parallels with his RUC report which has caused a storm this week. Former Foreign Office mandarins attacked Patten's reforms in Hong Kong in a similar manner to the way David Trimble greeted his RUC report. Trimble described it as the shoddiest piece of work he had seen in 30 years. Even so, ministers are grateful that Patten has come up with such ambitious reforms, most of which they would like to implement. As a proposed new Commissioner in Europe he has already dazzled the MEPs in his introductory interrogation. Many MEPs said Patten's was by far the best performance of all the new Commissioners. More devious than he looks, less principled than he sounds, Patten is the great survivor. He is a unique example of a charismatic Tory of substance who has found a place in Thatcher's Britain, Major's Britain and now Blair's. His role as Commissioner is likely to be his last big job. He has hinterland and a house in France in which to enjoy his books and perhaps write a few as well. But retirement is still several years away.

Europe is the big explosive issue in Britain, for the Tory party in particular - and Patten is in Brussels. He will be making more waves yet.