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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 19:02 GMT

UK Politics

Sir Leon: Britain's old hand in Brussels

Leon Brittan: The longest serving British commissioner

Sir Leon Brittan's resignation as a European commissioner is the second of his career; but promotion may follow soon after, according to some political analysts.

Observers in Brussels say the commission vice-president could be likeliest person to replace Jacques Santer as president until the end of the year, if Mr Santer is forced out.

EU in crisis
As Sir Leon was personally untainted by the report, and the other vice-president Manuel Marin was singled out for criticism, EU government leaders might find it easiest to promote the former British politician to the presidency, analysts say.

Sir Leon was forced to resign from Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet following the Westland affair. More than a decade later he resigned again from his prominent position as a senior EU commissioner.

In the Cabinet, Sir Leon was the youngest home secretary since Sir Winston Churchill.

In Europe, he was the longest serving British commissioner - having spent three years more in his post than any other British predecessor.

[ image: Westland: Caused two Cabinet resignations]
Westland: Caused two Cabinet resignations
Sir Leon, 59, was brought up in an orthodox Jewish family. He was educated at public school and won an exhibition to Cambridge at the age of 16.

It was during his teenage years that he joined the Conservative Party. At Cambridge, he was president of the Cambridge Union as well as chairman of the university Tory Association.

He later studied at Yale in the United States and upon his return to the UK, he was called to the bar where he became a libel lawyer.

However, Sir Leon was determined to pursue a political career and tried unsuccessfully for adoption in several constituencies. In 1974, he won Cleveland and Whitby and later became MP for nearby Richmond following boundary changes.

When the Conservatives won power in 1979, he became a minister in the Home Office. Later, he was promoted to become chief secretary to the Treasury, becoming the youngest member of the Cabinet.

Following the 1983 general election, Sir Leon was promoted to home secretary.

Sieges and strikes

His tenure at the Home Office saw the siege at the Libyan Peoples Bureau in London during which a policewoman was shot, the miners' strike and, an extradition treaty with Spain.

In September 1985, in a government reshuffle, Sir Leon was made trade and industry secretary in a move which was seen by many as a demotion.

Within months, the Westland affair hit the headlines and Sir Leon had left the Cabinet.

Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, wanted the troubled Westland company to link up with Europe while Sir Leon and a Cabinet majority wanted it to join with Sikorski of America.

Private and strictly confidential

After Mr Heseltine resigned from the Cabinet, he asked Sir Leon for details of a letter he had had from British Aerospace.

[ image: Michael Heseltine: Question led to Sir Leon's apology to MPs]
Michael Heseltine: Question led to Sir Leon's apology to MPs
The trade and industry secretary said he had not received any such letter. But officials at the DTI said he had known about the letter. Sir Leon had to apologise to the House, saying he had not mentioned it as it was marked private and strictly confidential.

It later became clear Sir Leon had put pressure on British Aerospace to leave a European consortium bidding for Westland. He had also urged GEC to play a less prominent part in the European bid.

That was followed by the revelation he had authorised the leaking of the solicitor general's letter to Mr Heseltine, in which the former defence secretary was warned of a material inaccuracy in a letter he had sent to a merchant bank about Westland.

Sir Leon's resignation was called for and promptly delivered.

A report by the Defence Select Committee into the leaking of the letter was critical of Mr Brittan who had refused to answer several of its questions.

Trade portfolio

On the backbenches, Mr Brittan spoke out on various issues, notably calling for sanctions against South Africa.

He left the backbenches for Europe in 1989 with a Thatcherite attachment to free trade equalled by his enthusiasm for most things European.

A decade later, his trade portfolio made him more powerful and independent than most of his fellow commissioners.

Many believe he might even have been a plausible candidate for the commission presidency at the last changeover in 1995, had he not been British. Instead he has been serving as a vice-president under Jacques Santer.

Prior to the mass resignation, Sir Leon had resolved to leave Brussels when the Santer commission was due to end its term in December.

Untouched by any of the accusations, Sir Leon was asked by Mr Santer to help liase with investigators on the commission's behalf.

It is unclear if Sir Leon had made any plans for a new position after the millennium.

He does not want to resume his barrister's practice, nor return to Westminster.

Instead, Sir Leon has a strong desire to remain politically active as a pro-European Conservative.

Time will only tell whether he will continue to do that inside the EU or will leave the crisis-ridden commission for good.

As he once said: "I want to go when people say, 'Why is he going?' - not to stay until they say, "Why is he staying?'"

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