POLITICS is said to be the art of the possible. What is most important in the art is the ability to identify what is possible and what is not. Is it possible for the newly elected Legislative Council to serve for four years, beyond the transfer of government in 1997? London says yes; Beijing says no. The British Government knows it has no authority to insist that this last pre-1997 legislature should ride the through-train. There is no such provision in the Sino-British Joint Declaration or any other agreement between the two governments. It is also quite obvious that politicians in London no longer have any illusions about China's determination to have the Hong Kong legislature reconstituted after the establishment of the Special Administrative Region. British Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind did not bother to raise the issue during his meeting with Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, realising that any discussion on the topic would only be, in Mr Rifkind's own words, 'a sterile exchange of well-known positions'. In an article appearing last Sunday, Mr Rifkind vowed: 'The Governor and I stand by the electoral arrangements as they are now, and the councils that have been elected.' This they can do, if nothing else - until June 30, 1997. And as they stand there, China-appointed bodies will be busy making preparations for replacing the present councils as soon as the Special Administrative Region is established. Chris Patten and Mr Rifkind know very well that the present Legco cannot survive the transfer of government in 1997. By insisting on the impossible what they can do is make it difficult for the reconstitution of the legislature to take place smoothly, with support from Hong Kong people and the international community. As the present Legco will terminate on June 30, 1997, Hong Kong needs to hold, as early as possible, open and fair elections for the first SAR legislature. Before the elections can be held, a properly constituted provisional body has to be formed to take care of any necessary legislation after the new government is set up. Mr Patten has promised that his administration will co-operate with the Preparatory Committee for the SAR that is to be formed next January. The Chinese and British foreign ministers have reached an agreement on how the Hong Kong Government can provide the Preparatory Committee with support. One central task of the Preparatory Committee will be to make arrangements for forming the new legislature after 1997. This has to be done and will be done with or without support and assistance from the Patten administration. If Mr Patten refuses to co-operate with the Preparatory Committee in this particular area, the situation will not be changed that new elections have to be arranged after he leaves Hong Kong. Only it may take the new government longer to prepare for the elections. If the provisional legislature has to remain there for a long period of time, it will be difficult to curb its powers. The provisional legislature will have to start functioning on July 1, 1997, and therefore has to be formed while Hong Kong is still under British rule. Mr Patten's hostility will make it impossible for this body to be constituted by elections on a reasonably wide franchise. MR Patten and others can attack the provisional legislature for its lack of representativeness and credibility, as they have done to the Preliminary Working Committee. Their attack will be as futile as in the case of the PWC, and will not be of any help to Hong Kong. The idea of the Hong Kong Government co-operating with the Preparatory Committee to make arrangements for the reconstitution of the legislature may not appeal to everybody. Some have got into the habit of calling every Sino-British agreement a betrayal of Hong Kong, while others are happy to see any British influence cut off from the preparatory work for the SAR. To the many who believe that Sino-British co-operation is essential for a smooth transfer of government, however, it makes no sense that disagreement should persist in one very important area. It would be much more helpful to Hong Kong if the British Government stopped pretending that the through-train for the legislature will materialise and started working with the art of the possible.