EVEN judging by the high level at which Hong Kong affairs are now dealt with in London it was a highly unusual step, demonstrating just how critical the deadlock in the talks over the territory's political future has become. The embattled British Cabinet last Wednesday reportedly took 12 minutes out of its regular weekly session - normally dominated by discussion of the domestic woes that threaten to topple the Conservative government - to hear about the current crisis in the negotiations over Hong Kong's electoral arrangements. Despite Governor Chris Patten's much-vaunted direct access to Prime Minister John Major, the raising of the territory's affairs in the full Cabinet is an extremely rare event. Sometimes a year or more will go by without it ever occurring. Hong Kong officials, even those close to the Governor, knew nothing about it, and were surprised to hear it had happened at all. When Mr Patten recently flew back to London, it was only for a meeting of a smaller sub-committee of ministers. But sources in London revealed Hong Kong was high on the agenda when ministers gathered in Downing Street on a foggy cold morning last Wednesday, for the 10 am session. Shortly after 11 am, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd reported on his icy Tuesday afternoon encounter with Chinese Ambassador Ma Yuzhen, at which he had expressed ''deep disappointment'' over how Beijing had gone back on its word to make concessions, during the 16th round of talks. Mr Hurd had apparently warned Mr Ma of his intention to brief fellow ministers on the negotiating deadlock, and proceeded to do precisely that. The Foreign Secretary reportedly told his colleagues the crunch would come after yesterday's conclusion of the 17th round, as key figures in London and Hong Kong consider if there is any hope of reaching an agreement. He warned that, while there would be no immediate public reaction to the outcome of the latest round, unless there was some significant progress, the Governor was likely to have no choice but to put some electoral legislation before the Legislative Council. While Mr Patten has been talking of being able to ''pull the plug'' on the negotiations, only Mr Hurd has the authority to do that, and he will only do so after fully informing his Cabinet colleagues. Sources said no minister voiced any objection to taking such a step during last Wednesday's meeting. Despite all the talk of unilaterally introducing either the original Patten package to the Legislative Council, or the compromise variant put forward during the summer, there is only one option now on the table. No one is even talking, as yet, about going it alone on the more substantial issues relating to the Legco polls. Instead all that is being considered is a partial bill, containing what Britain - but not Beijing - considers to be the first-stage issues: the voting age and system, for the 1994 and 1995 polls, and the abolition of appointed seats. Executive Councillors will informally meet at Government House tonight to discuss such a step. Most had agreed in principle, at their regular weekly session last Tuesday, that such a move would be inevitable if no progress was made at the 17th round. Buttheir decision was not unanimous, with Exco member Tung Chee-hwa - also an adviser to Beijing - dissenting. No final decision is expected today, with the discussion expected to continue on Tuesday. British chief negotiator Christopher Hum will return to London for a series of equally crucial meetings with ministers and Foreign Office officials, although Minister for Hong Kong Alastair Goodlad may be missing from them. He is out of action with a back injury. Sources in London say a decision on whether to go ahead with a partial bill may be made by Wednesday afternoon. That will allow Mr Hurd to brief ministers again at this week's Cabinet meeting on Thursday morning, as he has already pledged to do. The Governor will attend his monthly question and answer session at the Legislative Council around the same time, and will want to have something firm to announce. A partial bill will have to be gazetted, most likely, but not inevitably, on a Friday, as was the case with the original Patten proposals last March 12. It will then have to be presented to Legco, with December 8 and 15 already pencilled in as the only dates left before the Christmas recess. But no one is ruling out the possibility last-minute diplomatic contacts may delay or ever forestall such a process, as they did earlier this year. Even gazetting a bill does not necessarily lead to it being put before Legco as events have already proved. Britain has yet to receive Chinese Premier Li Peng's reply to Mr Major's letter of two weeks ago - in which he called for more intensive negotiations - and a constructive response would be seen as a conciliatory gesture. British embassy officials in Beijing will be meeting with their Chinese Foreign Ministry counterparts this week, to see if the mainland team is ready to set a date for an 18th round. Everyone will be watching closely for any sign that Beijing is prepared to give ground on the two most immediate issues at stake: the abolition of appointed seats on the district boards and two municipal councils, and inclusion of the single seat single vote system for Legco in a first-stage agreement. So far the signs are not encouraging. China's de facto spokesman in the territory, Xinhua Deputy Director Zhang Junsheng, yesterday gave the clearest public explanation of the gap between the two sides over a first-stage agreement. He said the Chinese side wanted a total separation of the 1994 and 1995 electoral arrangements, but the British did not. ''The nature of the 1994 and 1995 elections is different,'' he said. ''The district boards and two municipal councils are not organs of power. But the Legislative Council will become the legislature of the SAR [Special Administrative Region] after 1997,'' he said. The territory's leftist press was also full of warnings that Beijing would not give way, with Wen Wei Po accusing London of ''absolutely futile'' attempts at ''blackmail''. But for the moment, all that is clear is the two sides are heading for another tense period of brinkmanship, with no one yet sure if and when Britain will go over the edge - and go it alone on political reform. The British team are inclined to discount such rhetoric as the product of Hong Kong-based hardliners opposed to any agreement. One theory, circulating among government officials, is that the Chinese Foreign Ministry wants to strike a deal, which is whyVice-Foreign Minister and mainland chief negotiator Jiang Enzhu offered to make concessions, shortly before the November 10 cabinet committee in London.