He was educated at Haberdasher Aske’s school before entering Trinity College, Cambridge University. He then pursued a legal career, was called to the bar, Inner Temple, in 1962, and later obtained other legal honors.
Brittan’s political career began in 1974 when he became M.P. for Richmond, Cleveland, and Whitby. He also served as M.P. for Richmond from 1986 to 1988. Above all, he is remembered as being one of the new Thatcherite M.P.s who rose to power and influence in the early 1980s, although he himself later diverged from Margaret Thatchers hostile line on the European Economic Community.
Brittan became chief secretary to the exchequer in January 1981 and held that post until June 1983. He then became home secretary in Thatcher’s second administration, holding the post between June 1983 and September 1983. He was a fairly routine home secretary but was regarded as rather “wet” by Thatcher, who pro¬ceeded to blame him for the poor presentation of government policy that she believed had led to the defeat of a number of members of her government in the parliamentary by-election of 1985.
After the election, Brittan was effectively demoted to the post of minister of trade, a post he held for four months.
However, this period did produce one major controversy, when he and Thatcher decided that the only way to rescue the Westland company, which manufactured helicopters, was to force it into partnership with the American firm Sikorsky. Michael Heseltine, the British defense secretary, objected to this approach, instead favoring the construction of a rival European consortium to rescue the company, and waged an open campaign against the Thatcher and Brittan line in December 1985 and January 1986.
At this point Thatcher got Solicitor General Sir Patrick Mayhew to write a letter complaining about “material inaccuracies” in Heseltine’s campaign. Brittan arranged to have this letter “leaked” by Downing Street, and within hours, selective passages were in the hands of the press association. The next day, the Suns front page featured a picture of Heseltine with the headline “You Liar.” Mayhew was outraged at the leak of what he regarded as an internal and confidential letter, and he demanded an immediate inquiry into the source of the leak, even threatening Thatcher with the police if she refused. A few days later she acceded to an inquiry; and on 9 January, she informed the Cabinet that all future statements about the Westland issue had to be cleared by her office. Heseltine was not prepared to accept this restraint and walked out of the cabinet, immediately holding a press conference condemning Thatcher’s style of government. Brittan subsequendy misled the House of Commons on important details of the affair and had to apologize. He resigned on 24 January 1986, admitting that his continued role in government would weaken its effectiveness.
He became a member of the European Commission in 1989, and served as vice-president of the commission between 1989 and 1993 and again in 1995.
He married Diane Peterson in 1980.