Profile: For God and the right: Hong Kong's Governor wants to haul down the flag with a clear conscience, says Isabel Hilton; Chris Patten

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WHEN John Major addressed a gathering of Hong Kong-minded businessmen last week, a question hovered in the air. Had the time come, after more than a year of abusive exchanges between the Governor of the colony and the gerontocracy of Peking, for Major to put a little daylight between himself and Chris Patten?

It would not have been surprising had he done so. There would have been many cheers for some hint that UK plc was planning to return to the business of business in Hong Kong and drop this tiresome insistence on democracy that so irritates Peking. But by the time Major had finished, the question had shrivelled away. Governor and Prime Minister were clearly a duet.

It is not the first time that Major and Patten have been twinned in an enterprise of uncertain outcome. Nor is it the first time that onlookers have watched for enough daylight between them to admit a knife blade. During the general election of 1992, with Patten as Tory chairman playing John the Baptist to a singularly uncharismatic Messiah, the drone of knife-grinding was audible in the party. 'Nobody,' Patten said, 'is going to get so much as a sheet of tissue paper between me and the Prime Minister in the course of this campaign.' Nor did they.

To deliver democracy to the people of Hong Kong is a challenge of a different order, but Patten brings the same traits and skills to the job: persistence in the face of scepticism, the ability to create a tight, reliable team and that acute appreciation of the value of the Prime Minister's support.

There was nothing in Chris Patten's early life to suggest that he would become a politician. His father abandoned university to become a jazz drummer and then a music publisher. The family lived in unfashionable Greenford, in Essex, where Chris attended the local primary school until he won a scholarship to a Catholic school in west London. The family was not political; his mother, he once said, 'would have regarded talking about politics or religion as being slightly indecent'.

His classlessness is as firm as Major's; if it is less noticeable, it is perhaps because he had class bestowed upon him by Oxford. Even at Balliol, however, he showed no bent for politics. Contemporaries remember a genial companion, fond of writing and acting, who seemed destined for journalism.

During a trip to the United States he helped out in John Lindsay's campaign to become mayor of New York. 'Patten's job,' said a friend, 'was to watch the rival candidate, William Buckley, on television and relay to the campaign office the next day what he had said. His imitation of Buckley was so funny that he became a minor star in the campaign.' He returned to Britain determined to try politics.

As he tells it, he applied to Conservative Central Office and the BBC for jobs, was offered both and turned down the BBC. As some friends recall it, he applied to Conservative Central Office, the BBC and Transport House. The Conservatives replied first.

But it would be wrong to conclude that he is unprincipled. 'He would never,' said Shaun Woodward, a former party colleague, 'do anything he didn't think was right.' His principles are rooted in his religion and in a strong moral sense. 'He is a purposeful Roman Catholic and he strides on in the way people who have faith do,' said Tristan Garel-Jones MP, another friend and former colleague. 'He doesn't invite you to meet Jesus Christ - he's just an example of the best kind of British decency.'

His Conservatism was of the Heathite variety; his political apprenticeship led to his appointment as head of the Research Department in 1974, at 30 the youngest man to hold the job. But when Margaret Thatcher replaced Ted Heath he was left feeling, as he put it, as though he was in Vichy France, surrounded on all sides.

The 1979 election put Thatcher into Downing Street and Patten on the backbenches. Though he had written her speeches and, in large measure, her manifesto, there was no disguising that he was the wrong sort of Tory, and nor did he try. Ten days after her election victory, she spent her first weekend at Chequers. Suppurating in her handbag was a letter from him expressing his disapproval of monetarism and his fear that her policies could damage the party and the country. Nine years passed before he was forgiven.

His way back was as a speechwriter, having recanted his views on monetarism. There were spells in Northern Ireland and Education before the modest ministerial post of Overseas Development. It was 1989 before he got into the Cabinet, as Environment Secretary. The fat file on his desk was labelled Poll Tax.

When Thatcher's regime approached its dramatic end, Patten was one of the three ministers who told her she must go. He then backed Douglas Hurd for the leadership. He had a personal loyalty to Hurd, but it also made sense: if Hurd were to win, Patten would have a chance next time. Major's victory closed off that chance.

If that was a matter of regret, it did not show. He had influence with the new leader. 'It was Patten,' said a Tory MP, 'who filled that empty wineskin, John Major. In some ways, Major is still living off Patten's ideas.' High Cabinet office was surely within his grasp.

First, there would be an election. At Smith Square he inherited a divided party, an pounds 11m debt and no campaign plans. Victory 14 months later was, by any measure, a remarkable achievement.

On election night, though, as party notables posed for photographs, Patten looked as if he had swallowed a snake. He had known for days he might lose his seat in Bath, but the campaign there had been nasty. 'His wife had been spat on, which upset him deeply,' said a friend. 'It was the physical and verbal abuse that he minded, more than losing his seat.'

He could have stuck around for a by-election, but it was a risky option and he was soon to have another. At Smith Square on election night, Major took Patten aside and offered him Hong Kong.

PATTEN inherited an unpromising set of circumstances. With five years to go until the resumption of Chinese rule in the colony, relations with China were not good. A dispute over the building of a new airport had grown so messy that first Hurd, then Major had to visit Peking to sort it out. Both concluded that a more spirited approach was needed if Britain were to reach 1997 with the 1984 Joint Declaration honourably intact. That stipulates that Hong Kong will be a 'special administrative region' of China, its economy and structures guaranteed for 50 years.

Patten spent two months reading himself in. He bought guide books, buried himself in Foreign Office files, breakfasted with experts and lunched with interested parties. However much he absorbed, he refused to believe the Foreign Office line that the Chinese had special sensitivities. He thought, and still thinks, that they can be dealt with in the same way as anyone else.

There are many readings of what happened. Some believe he simply miscalculated when, in his first Governor's address, he put his proposals for widening the franchise so bluntly, and that everything since has been damage limitation. Certainly the delight which greeted his proposals in Hong Kong was soon replaced by anxiety as the Chinese abuse grew ever more virulent.

The liberals worry that he is showing signs of delivering less than he promised. Some even wonder if they are not witnessing an unlikely conspiracy with the Chinese, in which Britain will have been seen to try for more democracy and failed honourably. The commercial taipans, meanwhile, after wringing their hands at the damage the Governor's quarrel could do to their businesses, have been reassured by the steady rise in the stock market and now take comfort in what they see as his increasing irrelevance.

Patten's supporters, on the other hand - and there are still quite a few - believe there is a game worth playing and that he is playing it well. 'It would have been true in the Seventies,' said one, 'that China had nothing to lose by dismantling Hong Kong after 1997. But now they are more vulnerable to international opinion . . . They are far less likely than before to overturn what he achieves. He has raised the question of Hong Kong to international status, and when he hands it over things will be better than they otherwise would have been. It is a worthwhile exercise because any progress can be counted as a net gain.'

The final verdict is some way off. If it goes badly, as they point out in Hong Kong, it is the people there who will pay the price. But Patten will suffer, too, as failure would affect any political ambitions he might still have. These are already compromised: if he stays to the end, as he has said he will, he will miss the next election. But he will still be only 53, and many think the Tories may well need a man of his intellectual weight.

Such thoughts may not be uppermost in his mind. 'Chris tends to get on with the job in hand,' said a friend, 'rather than dreaming of the next one.' There are other calculations for a man who believes in original sin and original virtue. For Patten also believes in a Higher Judgement. Whatever happens, he wants to haul down the Union Jack with a clear conscience.

(Photograph omitted)