POLITICIANS the world over have a habit of taking seriously public opinion polls which show general support for themselves, and claiming to take with a hefty pinch of salt those which show them in an unfavourable light. While the Governor and his staff were happy to quote the long series of polls which put support for his political proposals at about two to one in favour, they are likely to pin less faith on the latest Hongkong University survey. The university's Social Sciences Research Centre's new findings show not only that Mr Patten's personal popularity has plunged a record six percentage points in one week, to a nonetheless very respectable 55 points, but also that support for his reform package has fallen. Some 26.8 per cent said they were in favour compared with 18.6 per cent who said they were opposed. The poll suggests that more Hongkong people want Sino-British talks to go ahead, co-operation between London and Beijing to be restored, and tension to subside sufficiently for the territory to get on with its daily business undisturbed. The results indicate dissatisfaction with Mr Patten's decision to go ahead with gazetting his proposals. He stands accused of deliberately provoking an angry reaction from Beijing by making his move on the eve of the National People's Congress, with his critics claiming that he set out to sabotage any hopes of talks taking place by whipping up anti-British feeling. Public opinion is fickle. Mr Patten's personal popularity and support for his reforms have been this low before. They are only one factor in an immensely difficult political equation facing the Governor and his advisers, but he is not unused to public disapproval, as his record in winning and losing Parliamentary seats shows. Those ready to write him off should recall that he was chairman of a party that trailed in the opinion polls every day up to the General Election, but ended up winning it. The Governor may even calculate it is better to be unpopular, making it easier for Legislative Councillors to amend the reform package to a formula closer to China's interpretation of the Basic Law. Mr Patten could then defer to the will of the people as expressed by the Legislative Council, while Beijing would be caught in a dilemma. It would be faced with an acceptable result, achieved through a process it refuses to recognise as legitimate. Rather than find itself forced to reject the councillors' decision, to the likely incomprehension and condemnation of the democratic world, China would rather delay discussion in Legco for as long as possible. Only by excluding Hongkong from the talks and negotiating directly with Britain will it be satisfied the result is in line with the Joint Declaration. Mr Patten, by contrast, is painted as having nothing to gain from negotiation, despite having left the door open for further talks about talks, because any Sino-British accord would effectively sideline both Legco and Mr Patten. According to this argument, China's renewed hints that it is ready to restart negotiations next month, and the clear groundswell of Hongkong opinion in favour of talks, will force Mr Patten to look for new ways to prevent progress. Warnings from Executive Councillor Professor Edward Chen Kwan-yiu that the bill must be tabled by the end of April, and calls by liberal legislators for its introduction no later than April 21, are taken to suggest the Governor is again trying to set deadlines, thereby keeping up the pressure on China. The fall in the opinion polls is the result of a local whispering campaign to spread the word, readily believed by the stock market, that if only the Governor would take his time, a way out could be found from the present impasse. China has more to gain by coming back to the table than abandoning talks. However, for as long as both sides are determined to stand on principle, the chances of any talks ending in success are remote. The Governor wants to keep to his own timetable, instead of allowing himself to be pushed into working to someone else's pace and agenda. If he does that, by the time the bill starts its progress through the Legislative Council at the end of next month, he will be heading for the United States, ready to play to a bigger audience.