LONDON — Leon Brittan, a British politician who rose fast and far in the Margaret Thatcher government, only to see his career crash over a leaked letter in a dispute over a helicopter company, died on Jan. 21 at his home here. He was 75.
The cause was cancer, his family said in a statement.
Mr. Brittan was at the center of an argument about which of two multinational consortiums should rescue a financially ailing British company, Westland Helicopters. The dispute, which roiled the cabinet in 1986, ultimately threatened the job of Mrs. Thatcher herself. But it was Mr. Brittan who resigned.
Michael Heseltine, the defense minister and a vocal Conservative critic of Mrs. Thatcher’s, opposed the joint bid of the American company United Technologies and the Italian company Fiat, which Westland’s board favored, as did Mr. Brittan, who was minister of trade and industry.
When part of a letter containing information damaging to Mr. Heseltine’s case for the other suitor, an all-European group, was leaked, Mr. Brittan accepted responsibility and stepped down, although many believed it was really Mrs. Thatcher who was responsible for the leak.
That was not the end of public life for Mr. Brittan, who went on to spend a decade in the European Commission, the executive body of what became the European Union, where he had responsibility first for antitrust policy and then for trade and some international relations, including those with the United States.
More recently, he returned to the headlines when questions were raised about how, as a government minister, he had handled allegations of a pedophile ring.
The son of Lithuanian Jews — his father was a doctor — Mr. Brittan was born in London on Sept. 25, 1939. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge; became president of the university’s famous debating society, the Cambridge Union; and secured a first-class degree.
While serving in Parliament, he won the support of Mrs. Thatcher, who described him in her memoirs as “enormously intelligent” and who in 1983, after he had held several positions in her government, promoted him to home secretary, or interior minister. The youngest person in that post since Winston Churchill, Mr. Brittan was considered intellectually brilliant but lacking a personal touch, and even Mrs. Thatcher accepted that he did not have much appeal to voters.
“Everybody complained about his manner on television, which seemed aloof and uncomfortable,” she wrote in her memoirs, adding that, having received many complaints about her own manner, she sympathized.
With responsibility for law and order, Mr. Brittan was in the middle of a bitter, sometimes violent, miners’ strike in 1984 and 1985. Mrs. Thatcher eventually concluded that she had promoted Mr. Brittan too quickly, and moved him to what seemed the less visible post of trade and industry secretary.
Yet that propelled him into the confrontation with Mr. Heseltine over Westland Helicopters. When Mr. Brittan resigned from the cabinet in 1986, after the partial leak of a letter from the solicitor general that accused Mr. Heseltine of “material inaccuracies” in his case for the European consortium, many believed that he was the fall guy and that, in authorizing the leak, he had been doing Mrs. Thatcher’s bidding. (Mr. Heseltine also resigned, and the American-Italian consortium won its bid for the company.)
Mr. Brittan’s cabinet colleague Nigel Lawson later wrote: “Had he made public all he knew, she could not possibly have survived; but he chose not to do so. As it was, he meekly accepted the role of scapegoat.”
Many Conservative lawmakers wanted him out, Mr. Lawson added, and the fact that Mr. Brittan was one of several Jewish politicians that Mrs. Thatcher had promoted suggested that there was perhaps “an unpleasant whiff of anti-Semitism.”
Mr. Brittan’s resignation might have ended his career, but three years later, Mrs. Thatcher repaid his loyalty by sending him to Brussels to serve on the European Commission. He promoted a free-market approach in an institution that was then led by a French socialist, Jacques Delors. While in Brussels, he hired and helped a young Nick Clegg, now Britain’s deputy prime minister, who was on his team of close advisers.
In 1999, the entire European Commission resigned en masse because of a scandal over cronyism, and Mr. Brittan returned home, where he was made a member of the House of Lords and became vice chairman of UBS Investment Bank.
His survivors include his wife, Diana, and two stepdaughters, Katharine and Victoria.
Recently, questions were raised about how Mr. Brittan dealt with a dossier he was handed in 1984, when he was home secretary, by a Conservative lawmaker, Geoffrey Dickens, alleging the existence of a pedophile ring consisting of prominent and powerful figures. At the time, he said he would give the dossier to the police.
In 2013, it was revealed that a government investigation of several decades-old pedophilia cases had determined that the dossier was missing. Claims of a cover-up, which Mr. Brittan denied, have not been substantiated, and Mr. Brittan’s death makes an investigation into these events more difficult.