Blue skies and moonlight forecast for 1997

'THE Preliminary Working Committee is blue-skying,' said Cheung Man-kwong's interpreter alarmingly.

You can't blame the hard-pressed interpreter entirely. It takes a little thought to get from the Chinese metaphor 'a horse walks in the sky' to 'living in cloud cuckoo land'. And blue-skying sounded much more dramatic.

Besides, the unsung hero in the glass box did magnificently a few moments later when Mr Cheung came up with his own version of a poem by the Ming emperor Li Yu.

'Is there no end to proposals by the PWC?' asked the schoolteachers' representative lyrically.

'What threats do we have to endure?/ Last night there was a North Wind./ How does democracy fare in the full moonlight?.../ How sad one can be, come '97./ Is it a river of no return?' Roger Luk, no political ally of Mr Cheung's, but a man much given to quoting obscure poetry in Legco (often with rather less successful interpretation), positively squirmed in his seat with pleasure.

Other legislators smiled too, but not all agreed with the sentiments.

The fact is: when China set up the Preliminary Working Committee, it did Chris Patten a favour.

That is not a popular opinion. But From the Gallery is convinced of its accuracy.

One has only needed to listen to legislators allegedly talking to the motion 'That this Council thanks the Governor for his policy address' over the past two days to realise the spotlight is no longer on Mr Patten. The PWC was the subject of the debate, the Governor only an afterthought.

Love him or hate him, most of them love or hate the PWC even more.

Tam Yiu-chung, for instance, is a PWC-o-phile. That may be because he is a member.

The Governor, he fulminated, had said the PWC was just an advisory body. It was not. It was a statutory body under the National People's Congress. So neither Mr Patten nor Szeto Wah, who as a schoolteacher should not be echoing these things, should indulge in self-deception.

So there! Put that in your pipe and hope there's no python stuck in the other end! But Mr Tam hadn't finished yet. The Governor, he reminded councillors, had proposed PWC members join the Joint Liaison Group as advisers.

Bah! Humbug! He was putting forward a counter-proposal and hoped the Governor would be magnanimous enough to accept it. Why not appoint PWC members as advisers to the Governor on how to improve relations with China? Hmmm. A good idea. PWC members like Lu Ping and Zhou Nan for instance. That has definite possibilities.

Through all this Eric Li's mouth was working silently.

He was practising his speech and timing himself with his wrist-watch propped in front of him on the bench.

Tik Chi-yuen slumbered quietly in the corner.

The Venerable Tu nodded with all the sagacity of her 80 years every time someone said something favourable to co-operation with the PWC.

But it was Vincent Cheng, the Hongkong Bank's Legco representative and senior economic research manager, who came up with the most startling revelation of the afternoon.

After his obligatory reference to the PWC (senior civil servants, whose duties range from formulating policy to performing in Cantonese opera, should be treated with dignity when briefing the second stove), he turned to economics and the Governor's advice to look to Adam Smith for inspiration.

It was then the truth came out. 'I haven't read Adam Smith,' he said, 'apart from a few excerpts.' Perhaps that other banker, David Li, might have helped out. But he had already left. It was almost 4 pm.