ASK Lord Howe what he thinks of Governor Chris Patten and the former foreign secretary is unstinting in his praise. ''Chris Patten's an extremely original and conscientious thinker,'' he said. ''He's a man of great integrity and very great experience.'' But ask Lord Howe, one of the key architects of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, what he thinks of the phrase ''no agreement is better than a bad agreement'' and a somewhat different picture emerges. ''It's a glib phrase, quite honestly, because it presumes you can recognise a bad agreement with that much clarity,'' he said. No doubt that was because Lord Howe had not been told the phrase was one of the Governor's favourites. For the former foreign secretary and deputy prime minister takes some pains to praise Mr Patten and his policies, even if some of his comments - and past actions - are slightly at odds with them. Lord Howe is the only remaining dark horse among the principal British participants in the negotiation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration when it comes to taking a stand over the present political controversy. While the other key figures - former prime minister Lady Thatcher and former foreign affairs adviser Sir Percy Cradock - have both taken high-profile and unequivocal positions on opposite sides of the issue, Lord Howe has adopted a much more cautious approach. When he appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he was seen by some as evasive, declining to answer hypothetical questions about democracy; unlike Mr Patten, who was last week extremely forthright in his evidence. That sparked concern among some of Mr Patten's supporters over whether Lord Howe might join the growing ranks of British peers critical of the present moves towards political reform. But the Cradock camp is contemptuous of the former foreign secretary's refusal to come out in open opposition to the Governor's policies. However, in his first full interview on Hong Kong since stepping down from office in 1991, Lord Howe offered the most detailed insight yet into his views on the current controversy. While expressing support for the Governor's actions, he laid great stress on the need to get back to the negotiating table. ''The centrally important thing for the future is that both sides must recognise that it is never too late to resume the search for common ground,'' Lord Howe said. ''The fact they [the Hong Kong Government] have moved so far with the Legislative Council only in relation to the areas which are very nearly common ground shows that they are leaning over backwards to recover that common cause.'' Lord Howe was just as dismissive of the idea of an agreement to disagree, which has been canvassed in Hong Kong Government circles of late, as he was of the phrase ''no agreement is better than a bad agreement''. ''At any stage an agreement to disagree is second-best,'' he said. ''It's not something that provides a long-term basis for the future.'' Lord Howe even expressed understanding for one of the key Chinese criticisms of the Governor's original democracy blueprint, which proposed a 2.7 million electorate for the nine new functional constituencies, although he stopped short of actually endorsing Beijing's objections to them. ''It's a legitimate point to be made on the Chinese side that if you seek to transform the functional constituencies so they become wholly unrecognisable as what they were to be, and they become a method of, de facto, outstripping the constraint on directly-elected seats, then that seems to me to be a point that can be legitimately made in the discussions,'' he said. ''It's an argument they [the Chinese] can advance and I think they have been advancing it and it's a legitimate area for discussion.'' But on whether to proceed with political reform in the face of China's pledge to dismantle anything Britain does after 1997, Lord Howe is firmly on Mr Patten's side. He said that while Beijing's threats must be taken into account, it would be right to go ahead in the hope that common sense eventually prevailed. ''The course which should probably command the most attention is the course that they're not going to be carried out, because I believe it's possible to persuade people to refrain from implementing threats,'' Lord Howe said. However, he had a warning for Hong Kong (which was often heard from former Governor Lord Wilson, but was rarely, if ever, mentioned in Government House these days): he said the territory must stay out of mainland politics if it wants to survive. ''It's entirely clear that Hong Kong can't logically claim what we've achieved for it - namely the preservation of its own structures and systems - and at the same time claim to be a bridge for change and upheaval in mainland China,'' he said. ''The going wisdom must be prudence and caution. Not out of some craven fear but out of sheer common sense. It is a unique situation. The Joint Declaration was hailed as a unique achievement, a unique agreement to provide for a unique situation, and the most important part of it is that it's a two-way deal.'' Lord Howe singled out legislators as having a particularly important role to play in exercising such restraint: ''Those that stand for election, those that are elected, need to take account of the kind of points I'm making.'' But he was characteristically cautious about just how far the Hong Kong Government should go in trying to prevent local groups dabbling in mainland politics. ''One should certainly discourage the use of Hong Kong as the bridge for a counter-revolution,'' Lord Howe said. ''One can only take action to avert this within the framework of Hong Kong's legal system. It would be perverse to use a legal system which was not compatible with Hong Kong's rule of law tradition to try to prevent it happening.'' Lord Howe - who last year published a high-powered but diplomatically phrased report on human rights in China, and has stressed the importance of adopting a ''respectful'' approach on the issue - also gave a sinologist's interpretation of the June 4 crackdown, which is shared by British Ambassador to Beijing Sir Robin McLaren. ''For those of us who are concerned with the preservation of Hong Kong's way of life and liberal democratic values, what we saw at Tiananmen Square was the use of military force to suppress dissent. ''But many people in China itself thought they saw in Tiananmen Square the threat of turbulence, risking the return of chaos to China. So if Hong Kong unconsciously identifies itself with the risk of danger to China then it actually increases the danger to itself.'' They are remarks that might have aroused suspicions among Hong Kong's pro-democracy groups, had Lord Howe become Governor rather than Mr Patten; for the former foreign secretary was originally seen as a leading contender for the post. He defended the decision to appoint a political governor, although not without some reservations about the high expectations that still surround such a choice. ''Most people were looking for a different style of governor for the handover without being very clear what they meant. I think they recognised that the passage up to 1997 was going to be very different from what had gone before, and I think people were scanning the horizon for some new, previously uninvented, creature to do the job,'' he said. ''It clearly is probably the most important governorship in Hong Kong's history and people, more than at other times, would be looking for some miracle worker, and miracle workers don't exist. But Chris Patten's an extremely conscientious and original thinker. ''He's always been a man of careful deliberation and the important thing is that the approach he has adopted is not an individualistic one. It's the approach commended and supported by the British Government.'' One reason Lord Howe was seen by some as unlikely to become Governor was his unpopular visit to Hong Kong following the Tiananmen crackdown, when he bore the brunt of public hostility over London's failure to grant British nationality rights. Today, three years after he left ministerial office, Lord Howe is still at odds with Hong Kong on the nationality issue. All he was prepared to say was that the House of Lords' vote last year in favour of passports for ethnic minorities increased the argument for granting right of abode. ''The fact the House of Lords is among those supporting the view now being put forwardfrom Hong Kong does increase the wisdom of giving that case very serious consideration.'' It is a substantially less-than-whole-hearted endorsement, even on a matter that has already won such widespread support in Britain, showing that on nationality, like so many other Hong Kong issues, Lord Howe seems to prefer to sit on the fence rather than come down firmly on either side of the debate.