Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial Governor, has never hidden his disdain for British officials responsible for overseeing the colony's transition to Chinese sovereignty before his appointment. Now that British sovereignty over Hong Kong has ended, he has gone one step further by revealing how, in his view, the people of Hong Kong were let down. In the book The Last Governor, written by his friend Jonathan Dimbleby, Mr Patten has made damaging allegations against Lord Howe, the former British foreign secretary; Sir Percy Cradock, the former prime ministerial foreign affairs adviser; and Lord David Wilson, his predecessor as governor. In Dimbleby's words, Mr Patten feels they 'appear to have colluded with China to subvert the will of the Hong Kong people and, in the process, made his own task incomparably more difficult'. The accusation focuses on a crucial decision taken by the British Government in 1987 not to hold what would have been the territory's first direct elections the following year. 'Without accusing them directly of 'betrayal', he [Mr Patten] told me that 'their judgment did not seem to be in line with the [Sino-British] Joint Declaration or with our historic and substantial responsibilities to six million people - who are real people, who are not part of a sort of interesting diplomatic puzzle,' writes Dimbleby. 'His essential charge against key figures in a government of which he was a junior member is that in 1987 Britain entered into what he disparages as a 'gents' understanding' with China to breach an undertaking given to the colony following the Joint Declaration. ' 'If I were a citizen of Hong Kong,' Patten said, 'I would regard it as very bad that I hadn't been kept in the know and that my views had been treated in this way.' ' To Mr Patten, what matters is that in November 1984, 'the British Government published a White Paper advocating the reform of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) and proposing the introduction of 'a very small number of directly elected seats' in the forthcoming 1988 elections, building up to what was carefully, if opaquely, described as a 'significant number' by 1997 when Hong Kong was due to revert to China'. In 1987, following up on a promise made in the 1984 White Paper, Hong Kong people were consulted on whether direct elections should be introduced in 1988. The Basic Law was then still being drafted and Beijing stated in no uncertain terms that Hong Kong's pre-1997 political development must converge with a post-1997 framework yet to be worked out by the Basic Law drafting committee. What upset Mr Patten was that public opinion collected during the consultation exercise was apparently 'fudged' to meet Chinese demands that direct elections be deferred until 1991. Democrats collected 230,000 signatures on petitions for direct elections in 1988, whereas leftist organisations orchestrated 135,000 'individual' submissions in the form of identical pre-printed forms. Yet the official survey office report gave more weight to the 'individual' submissions than the petitions - a conclusion that was the subject of heavy criticism at the time. After going through British records of diplomatic exchanges during the period, Mr Patten has now intimated that Britain appears to have had a hand in engineering the outcome. Dimbleby writes: 'Patten describes what happened . . . as a 'pretty peculiar business' which involved such 'spectacularly imaginative ways' of seeking and interpreting opinion that a detached observer might well judge the exercise to have been 'bogus'. 'It appears that London had already intervened on China's behalf by advising Beijing informally that its supporters would be well advised to submit their views in the form of individual letters rather than collectively.' Then came the 'gents' agreement'. In late September 1987, governor Wilson indicated to Zhou Nan, director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua (the New China News Agency), that the preliminary results of the public consultation showed a majority in favour of democratic elections in 1988, although not a substantial one. Dimbleby writes: 'He explored the implications of this in terms that led the Chinese to conclude the British Government would none the less not feel obliged to abide by this verdict. 'Zhou Nan's impression that the two sides had now reached a private understanding to this effect was doubtless reinforced when Wilson ventured that, in this case, a significant section of the community - the influential middle classes - would be gravely disappointed. 'Wilson stressed that the terms of his understanding with Zhou Nan were both preliminary and conditional, but they turned out to be final, if not entirely unconditional. '[In November 1987] at a meeting with Ke Zaishuo [Beijing's then representative on the Joint Liaison Group, his opposite number, Sir Robin McLaren] reported that the full survey report had confirmed the governor's initial assessment in September. 'McLaren did not feel obliged to point out the self-evident truth that the survey had produced an embarrassingly large majority in favour of the 1984 White Paper proposal. 'However, echoing Wilson, he did voice concern that a significant number of those who endorsed the 1988 option came from the middle and managerial classes, on whose commitment to stay in the territory Hong Kong's future was so dependent. 'In the face of the evidence, the British authorities reacted with an effrontery more usually associated with a banana republic. 'Declaring that 'individual' submissions had been accorded a greater value than petitions, the Hong Kong Government, endorsed by the Foreign Office, blithely announced that, on the basis of the available evidence, it was clear that 'more were against than in favour of the introduction of direct elections in 1988'.' In the event, the 1988 White Paper on representative government ruled out direct elections that year but promised a limited number of directly elected seats for the 1991 Legco poll without violating China's favoured principle of 'convergence'. Dimbleby writes: 'Patten believes that the pusillanimity of the Foreign Office and Government House inflicted lasting damage, that by conceding Beijing the right both to control the speed of reform and, in effect, to veto Britain's proposals, the Foreign Office not only rode roughshod over Hong Kong opinion but surrendered the chance to entrench democracy in Britain's last significant colony. 'Patten does not accuse them of cowardice but of a fateful error of statesmanship.' Mr Patten told Dimbleby: 'As ever with some of these too-clever-by-half decisions - 'not the right time' and so on - you build up more political problems by not facing up to things. And, since we had promised people in the House of Commons in 1984 that Hong Kong would have a broadly based democratic administration by 1997, it seems to me curious that we weren't even prepared to take one or two steps towards that objective in 1987.' Only late in his five-year term did Mr Patten begin to suspect a Foreign Office ploy to keep him in the dark, saying he had not been briefed on the 1987-88 episode before taking up his post. 'Just before the end of his governorship, he explained that he had still not seen all the relevant documents as 'quite a few of the papers seem to have slipped back to London'. 'Britain's last governor has stopped short of demanding a House of Commons inquiry, contenting himself with saying: 'If there is an argument about this and people want to know what really happened, then I don't see any reason at all why someone shouldn't look at the papers.' ' The call for an inquiry has since been picked up by Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, but analysts feel it is unlikely to be heeded by the ruling Labour Party, which is keen to patch up Britain's relations with China. Mr Patten's and Dimbleby's accusations (it is difficult to differentiate between the two) have understandably upset their targets. Sir Robin McLaren said from London: 'I am saddened by these kinds of comments from Jonathan Dimbleby coming from him in this way. I gave him interviews for his television programme and I have answered his questions. 'But I can't say that there is any question of betrayal of Hong Kong by those who were going like me, like British ministers of the day, to do their best for the people of Hong Kong and to seek to secure their rights and freedoms. 'I don't see either that the question of whether or not democracy was pursued at the cost of all else should be the sole criterion in judging the performance of those British ministers and officials who were concerned with Hong Kong matters over the last 15 or 20 years. 'It is all very well looking at it with hindsight. But one thing one must say was that at that time we were also engaged in some very delicate discussions with the Chinese about the Basic Law and that hadn't been finalised, and it is hard to see that a decision at that time to go ahead quite regardless of Chinese opinion would have influenced favourably the content of the Basic Law on the subject of elections. 'Throughout, we told the Chinese that the consultation exercise [based upon the Hong Kong Government's 1987 Green Paper] was genuine, which it was, and I had some extremely heated discussions with my opposite number on it.' A source privy to Executive Council discussions at the time said he found Dimbleby's writing 'emotive and inflammatory'. 'The use of words such as 'collusion' was ill-considered,' said the source. 'What we wanted to achieve at the time was a 'through- train'. Of course you have to discuss with China.' Lord Wilson is unwilling to comment until he has read Dimbleby's book. Sir Percy Cradock could not be reached. Lord Howe's secretary said he was considering a reply at a later time.