HOPES that 25 Hong Kong wives and widows of ex-servicemen would finally be awarded British citizenship were dashed last night, less than two weeks after Governor Chris Patten vowed to get them ''a better deal''. Home Secretary Michael Howard rejected pleas to grant passports to the ageing women, whose husbands fought to defend Hong Kong during World War II, saying he had no reason to make an exception to the rules. Expectations of a change of heart were raised when it emerged that senior Tory backbencher Sir Ivan Lawrence, QC, was due to receive a written parliamentary answer from Mr Howard - a common device used to announce plans. But in the formal reply, Mr Howard said: ''I do not think that I would be justified in bringing forward legislation to dispense with the normal statutory provisions in their case.'' He added: ''The Government has on many occasions given an assurance that these wives and widows may come to the United Kingdom with a view to settlement at any time. I readily repeat that assurance.'' The Home Secretary said it would then be open to them to apply in the normal way to be registered or naturalised as a British citizen when they met the statutory requirements. His decision was denounced by Lillian Leonard, 68, who vowed to fight on until the battle was won or she was dead. ''I'm ashamed I was born under the Union Jack. They won't let us look up to it, they are making us look away,'' she said. ''What flag can we look up to after 1997? I'm not Chinese and they say I'm not British, just born in Hong Kong. But our husbands fought and died for that flag.'' Mrs Leonard said she would welcome a chance to put her case and those of the other 24 women to the British people, who she was sure would back them. ''I'd go to the Queen, I'd sit outside Buckingham Palace with my husband's medals until people starting asking me why I was there. I'd go tomorrow if someone gave me the air fare,'' she said. ''If the British people could hear my plea they would force the people at the top to change their minds.'' She rejected Mr Howard's reiteration that the wives and widows could live in Britain until they qualified for a passport under residency qualifications. ''At our age, if we had to sit through three or five British winters, we would be dead before we got the passports,'' she said. ''It's not human, those passports are our right. We will go on fighting and some of us will die fighting just because they don't want to change the law for 25 little old ladies.'' During his October 6 policy address to the Legislative Council, Mr Patten said the plight of the wives and widows should not be forgotten. He had expressed his concern on the matter to UK ministers, he said, though their replies ''have not gone as far as Hong Kong would want''. Mr Patten added: ''I will continue to press the British Government as strongly as I can for a better deal for our ethnic minorities and for the wives and widows of our ex-servicemen.'' In 1987, former servicemen were given British passports after a long fight, but British policy states that their wives may not have the same right.