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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK

UK Politics

Patten - the right stuff

Chris Patten: Combative style

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By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Chris Patten is going to face a bruising few months as his controversial report into the future of the RUC is torn apart by its opponents and his motives questioned.

But it is difficult to think of another man in public life better equipped to weather the assaults.

Mr Patten has almost made a career out of taking on hugely difficult jobs - and grabbing them straight by the throat.

Pattern Report
He is a devout Roman Catholic - his great grandfather was a refugee from the Irish potato famine - and, while he has always insisted that has had no bearing on his political life, there has always been an underlying suspicion amongst Ulster Unionists that this coloured his decisions.

The suggestion was floated more than once during his time as a Northern Ireland minister under Margaret Thatcher.

It came to a head in January 1984 when he defended the right of Londonderry city council to change its name to Derry, a long-time ambition of Roman Catholic nationalists.

Impossible task

His ability to attract controversy continued when he became Tory Party chairman charged with the seemingly impossible task of winning the 1992 general election for John Major.

His hardball tactics often brought criticism, even from his own side, and he will always be remembered for the campaign slogan about Labour's "double whammy" - which had to be explained to most British voters.

Unfortunately, he spent so much time saving Mr Major's bacon he took his eye of the ball in his own constituency and lost.

His reward was to be given the prestigious and highly-controversial job as the last Governor of Hong Kong, to prepare for the handover to China.

And, once again, it wasn't long before his tough style put him back in the firing line.

There is little doubt that he needed to adopt a hard headed approach to the handover negotiations with the Chinese.

Fatty Pang

But even he must sometimes have found it hard to be labelled "a villain of a thousand antiquities", a "criminal in the history of Hong Kong", a "whore" for President Clinton and, most famously, "Fatty Pang."

He took it all in his stride and, at the end of the day, the handover was deemed a huge success.

There was then all the talk of a political comeback and he was regularly talked of as a future Tory leader and prime minister.

But the Tory party had moved on and his brand of pro-European liberal Conservatism had fallen out of fashion and he clearly decided this would not be his next move.

Instead Tony Blair cannily offered him the job of reviewing the future of the RUC and he again leapt into the lion's mouth.

With that job done his next move is to Brussels as a European Commissioner - a role he has long relished and to which he will again take his combative skills.

It is a dead cert that his style will again ruffle feathers and few can think of an institution that needs it more.

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