HE hadn't stood at that rostrum in the overbearingly blue Conservative Central Office conference room since 1992, but looked quite at home. No one berated him for embarrassing the Government with calls for passports for 3.3 million Hong Kong people, nobody heckled the boy from 13,000 kilometres away who had designed a famous victory for his party then lost his own seat. Chris Patten was back among his own as he addressed the Conservative Political Centre in London this week and threw himself into the core of British domestic politics again. The following day newspapers were full of him. The Independent led the paper on Mr Patten's speech, The Daily Telegraph gave him a leader, The Times a piece of heavyweight analysis. The man always dubbed the thinking man's politician seemed to be playing to a UK domestic audience with a speech centred on the desire to control government spending just weeks before Chancellor Ken Clarke will make his annual budget announcements. The Governor told the party faithful he was not an advocate of a 'slash and burn' approach to political spending. 'But my three years in the fastest growing economies in the world have impressed on me that some reduction in the state's take of national income is an essential condition for more rapid growth as well as for lower taxes.' It looked on the face of it as if the former party chairman, who in 1992 was a leading 'one nation' Tory, committed to the welfare state with higher government spending, was talking about tiger economies - but in fact had changed his own spots. Some in the British media suggested he had swung to the right perhaps to keep in line with the current thrust of his party. Mr Patten, whose answers to questions must not always, God forbid, be read at face value, denied to aides that he had changed his political stance in a right or left direction. I suspect that as he had, in Norman Tebbit's words, played to his 'Kowloon constituency' in calling for the 3.3 million passports, so fleet-thinking Mr Patten was demonstrating that he is not too proud a man, and not too blinkered to accept that his Hong Kong experience has changed him. In an interview before he went to Hong Kong in 1992, Mr Patten said he wished to learn more about societies like Singapore. He read every book on Asia he could think of, he listened and he absorbed. All right, there are those who would argue that he did not listen enough on Hong Kong democracy, that is a different issue. But does a politician have to be so rigid in his or her views to not admit to learning something from experience? His whole speech was about West learning from East and vice versa. Mr Patten gave his audience an example: 'It is reported that when President Ramos, presiding over an impressive turnaround in the Philippines economy, was lectured by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew about the importance of the Philippines eschewing noisy democratic debate and learning a bit of discipline, he replied wistfully that they'd tried that in the past and were now trying to escape from the results.' He praised the virtues of free trade, yet he has done that many times before and then he asked: 'What is the issue around which I tiptoe so delicately?' It was of course that of the proportion of the community's income taken in taxes and public spending. In Britain 43 per cent of GDP goes on the Government's spending. In Hong Kong it is 16.2 per cent. There is the difference. 'I have not sat in the sun so long as to be ignorant of the size of the political task that curbing political expenditure entails. The scale of that task means that it must be for the long term,' he said. It was a thesis for lower spending linked to growth and does mark a shift in his approach to a more Tory liberalist view. The old wet, as one observer put it, had turned into an advocate of smaller government. But we must discount any Machiavellianism. These statements were not in any sense an attempt to endear Chris Patten to the right wing of the right drifting party he will one day rejoin. For instance he attacked 'the crasser sorts of individualism' - a covert attack on the extremes of Thatcherism and her idea that there is no such thing as society. And most importantly he maintained his alliance with those who want to see Britain at the heart of the European Union. Britain could not stand apart from Europe, he argued, it could lead there. Every time it had turned away from the rest of the continent in the past 'events have sooner or later dragged us back into the middle of a cockpit made more dangerous by our temporary absence'. It was classic pro-European Union material, the kind a good section of the Tory Party despises. Alarm bells immediately ring in Hong Kong. Is Mr Patten desperate to rush back to the heart of his party again? Will he, as one ill-informed media group in the territory was led to believe this week, be back home around Christmas? Not a bit of it. Mr Patten pointed out that many in the Labour Party would share his views on the welfare state. And he attacked the 'casualty' of hope in Tory Britain today. He further condemned the view that high unemployment was endemic in Europe - and there are many on the Tory right who see high unemployment as desirous for its own economic value. If he was politically ambitious today where should he even direct himself? Come July 1997 he will be too late for the next election and only a fool believes he knows which way the Tories will drift in the long term. So politically in Britain he had nothing to gain by this speech apart from seeing his name in headlines again. The Governor is of sufficient intellectual stature to enjoy and indeed run a debate in Britain just as he can in Hong Kong. This is him in the new UK magazine Prospect with a piece this week suggesting: 'We need to find answers that enable us to sustain more vigorous market economics with effective governments, that command popular support and respect. 'Any successful formula in Europe and North America must involve a reassessment of the relationship between private and public sectors. 'Standing still is not an option, governments and governed alike face tough choices.' Chris Patten's economics have shifted slightly, but it is on the admitted basis of his own recent experience. He was after all talking from an 'Asian perspective'. A delighted woman at the back of the hall suggested that if Mr Patten was Chancellor the tight spending plans of the kind he espoused would guarantee another Tory victory. Barring the democracy hiccups of a year ago and his talk with John Major over his future, then, Mr Patten has said until he is blue in the face that he will not return until after the handover. After that, who knows? I don't think he can foretell his future at this stage any more than anyone else can. As he said, albeit perhaps cryptically: 'People should not read into my comments views about my future political ambitions, or lack of them.'