Tom Richmond: Leon Brittan was a political giant tainted by scandals of past and present

Leon Brittan

Leon Brittan

0
Have your say

LEON Brittan was a political high-flyer who held three Cabinet posts while still in his 40s – and was tipped as possible successor to Margaret Thatcher before the Westland Helicopter affair sensationally brought about his downfall in 1986.

Undaunted by this disaster, Baron Brittan of Spennithorne immediately and boldly embarked on a new and illustrious career as a European Union commissioner after stepping down as the MP for Richmond where he was succeeded by William Hague.

But he annoyed some of his more Eurosceptic former Conservative colleagues at Westminster, who accused him of “going native” in Europe, and of being too critical of the party that had been central to his life.

Prior to his death on Wednesday night from cancer at the age of 75, he became embroiled in damaging allegations that he failed to act on claims that a paedophile ring existed at Westminster in the early 1980s.

It centred around his handling of a dossier handed to him as Home Secretary in 1983 by West Yorkshire Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens, containing allegations of child abuse involving senior political figures.

Lord Brittan subsequently confirmed that he had a meeting 
with Mr Dickens and was given a file, which he passed on to officials, 
adding: “I do not recall being contacted further about these matters by Home Office officials or by Mr Dickens or by anyone else.”

However, the department later released an extract of a letter Lord Brittan sent to Mr Dickens explaining that the material had been assessed as worth pursuing by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and was “now being passed to the appropriate authorities”.

Born on September 25 1939, Brittan was the son of a north London doctor who had emigrated from Berlin.

Brought up in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, he won a scholarship from his state primary school to Haberdasher’s Aske’s School in Hampstead and went to gain a double first from Trinity College, Cambridge. He became president of the Cambridge Union and chairman of the University’s Conservative Association.

In 1961, he was called to the Bar and pursued a successful career as a libel lawyer, taking silk in 1978. But his ambitions to enter the House of Commons were frustrated for 10 years.

He fought and lost North Kensington in 1966 and 1970, and was rejected as Tory candidate by more than a dozen safer Tory seats.

Finally, he was elected for Cleveland and Whitby in 1974. Before long he was in Mrs Thatcher’s shadow team, first as a deputy spokesman on devolution and then in employment.

As a lawyer, he attained the status of Queen’s Counsel in 1978 before entering government the following year.

Lord Brittan was a Home Office minister, serving under Willie Whitelaw, in Mrs Thatcher’s first government in 1979, and joined the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1981 to help energise the economic reforms being pursued and bring the public finances back under control.

It was his sheer industry and application to the task in hand, his lawyer’s precision and diplomatic finesse which prompted Margaret Thatcher to bring him into her Cabinet.

His meteoric appointment as Home Secretary in 1983 – the year that he became the MP for Richmond following boundary changes – made him the youngest person to hold the post since Sir Winston Churchill. Despite his awkward, somewhat smug and over-legalistic manner, it was even more to his credit that a man so young, who appeared to have no passion or fire in his belly, should have scaled such heights in so brief a time.

His tenure at the Home Office saw the siege at the Libyan People’s Bureau in London during which WPc Yvonne Fletcher was shot, and the controversial deployment of police in large numbers during the Miners’ Strike. He also had to contend with the political fallout from the rampant football hooliganism of the time, not least the Heysel disaster and the banning of English clubs from European competitions.

However his switch to the Department of Trade and Industry in 1985 was widely regarded as a demotion. The reason for his demotion, according to the then Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken, was that the Prime Minister felt that Brittan was “not getting the message across on television”.

Within months, he became caught up in the row over helicopter company Westland which eventually led to his resignation and that of then defence secretary Michael Heseltine.

Following a heated dispute within the Cabinet over whether the Somerset-based company should link up with an American or European backer, Lord Brittan resigned in early 1986 after being forced to apologise to Parliament over a letter which he had denied receiving from British Aerospace.

The scandal had calamitous political repercussions which could have brought down Mrs Thatcher herself, before the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s dreadful speech in an emergency Commons debate allowed the PM to extricate herself from the crisis.

Tellingly, one of the most heartfelt tributes yesterday came from Lord Heseltine who said his former Cabinet colleague was “a man of considerable integrity” with whom he had remained good friends in spite of their respective roles in the Westland affair. “He was very able, very reasonable, very articulate and had strong views which happened to coincide with mine. It was a very good relationship,” said the peer.

He said the key attributes that made him “a formidable advocate both in his commercial life and his political life” were “his intellect, the thoroughness with which he mastered his brief; and the reasonableness with which he would put his case”.

Lord Brittan spent a decade in Brussels from 1989 to 1999 as one of the UK’s European commissioners, and as vice-president of the Commission from 1989 to 1993. It was here that he became a mentor to Nick Clegg, the current Deputy Prime Minister.

His career in Brussels also ended with a resignation, when he and the other members of Jacques Santer’s Commission quit en masse amid allegations of fraud.

Lord Brittan continued to serve as vice-president for a few months under interim president Manuel Marin, but was then replaced by Chris Patten.

He was made a life peer in 2000, and took up positions in business, serving as vice-chairman of the UBS investment bank. He also became a trade adviser to David Cameron in 2010.

However the latter months of Lord Brittan’s life were overshadowed by claims that the Home Office, when he headed the department, did not investigate thoroughly allegations that prominent politicians had sexually abused young people.

An independent review commissioned in 2013 found that the department had not retained 
the dossier submitted by Geoffrey Dickens, the late Litleborough and Saddleworth MP.

The Home Office’s handling of child abuse allegations in the 1980s was investigated by NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless who found no evidence of a cover-up – but warned it was impossible to draw firm conclusions.

A second, more wide-ranging, inquiry into official handling of abuse claims was also commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May, but its proposed chair Fiona Woolf stood down after questions were raised about her social links with Lord Brittan, who was a near neighbour.

Last July, Lord Brittan confirmed he was interviewed by police about a “serious allegation”, but insisted that the accusation was “wholly without foundation”. It followed Press reports that he had been questioned under caution by police in connection with an allegation of rape dating back to 1967.

A family statement issued yesterday said: “We should like to pay tribute to him as a beloved husband to Diana and brother to Samuel, and a supportive and loving stepfather to Katharine and Victoria, and step-grandfather to their children. We also salute his extraordinary commitment to British public life as a MP, Minister, Cabinet Minister, European Commissioner and Peer – together with a distinguished career in law, and latterly in business.”

WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT LEON BRITTAN

LEON Brittan was a dedicated and fiercely intelligent public servant. As a central figure in Margaret Thatcher’s government, he helped her transform our country for the better. – Prime Minister David Cameron.

A SHY but kindly man, he was always more likely to encourage than condemn and he will leave his wide circle of friends in and out of politics with many memories to cherish. – Former prime minister Sir John Major.

I ALWAYS thought that Leon was very badly treated by Number 10. He was used to advance arguments he didn’t really believe in and got caught up in the crisis. That was a great shame. – Lord Heseltine whose resignation in 1986 prompted the end of Lord Brittan’s Cabinet career.

IN a globalising world, he saw the importance of keeping the European continent open to the wider world. That is what he believed in, fought for and achieved. – European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

HE was a kind, assiduous and brilliant man. – Commons leader William Hague, Leon Brittan’s successor as Richmond MP.

Back to the top of the page