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Lord Leach of Fairford – obituary

Rodney Leach in 2005 CREDIT: JULIAN ANDREWS
13 JUNE 2016 • 4:59PM

Lord Leach of Fairford, who has died aged 82, was a merchant banker who became the éminence grise of Jardine Matheson, the Far East trading group; but he was better known as a highly effective campaigner against British membership of the euro and for democratic reform of the European Union.

Rodney Leach was often described as an unsung hero – and a voice of sanity – in the long-running debate over British involvement in Europe in all its aspects. Cerebral and forensic in his approach, he stayed out of the political limelight but was a formidable behind-the-scenes persuader and organiser.

When he read the 1992 Maastricht Treaty Leach became convinced the EU was 'a bureaucratic oligarchy, not a democracy'

It was when he first read the full text of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that Leach became convinced the EU was “a bureaucratic oligarchy, not a democracy”. He opposed the idea of a “European constitution” that would be designed to centralise power in Brussels. And as support grew in the mid-1990s for British membership of the single currency, he became convinced that a “one-size-fits-all” monetary policy could not work for widely differing national economies.

In 1998 – at a time when the prime minister Tony Blair was positioning the UK to join the euro with the full-hearted support of the CBI and many members of the business establishment – Leach founded Business for Sterling to co-ordinate the case against.

The lobby group gradually recruited a thousand chairmen and chief executives to its cause and gathered momentum around the country until the pro-euro side largely faded away. But when asked whether he had personally saved Britain from a dangerous fate, Leach was self-effacing: “If there was credit it should be spread very, very broadly. I was just the chairman.”
On the issue of enlargement, Leach remarked that 'the democratic deficit … gets worse every time there is more Europe'

In 2005 he set up Open Europe, a think-tank dedicated to scrutinising and challenging every aspect of the European project, from the minutiae of financial regulation to the constitutional issues of enlargement, on which Leach remarked that “the democratic deficit … gets worse every time there is more Europe”.

But his approach was constructive. Having won the battle against euro membership, he said, “we now want to fight a much longer war to make something good happen.” His vision was of “a much more efficient Europe… that Britain would be at ease with”: a “neighbourly alliance” in which those nations that wanted to share economic sovereignty and those that just wanted co-operation and trade would be equally welcome.

As for the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU, Leach condemned what he called “adversarial claptrap” from the opposing politicians, and was guarded in expressing his own preference. In contrast to many voices warning that “Brexit” could bring economic disaster, Open Europe’s research indicated that the impact of British departure could be positive or negative, depending on subsequent trade deals and deregulation measures – but either way was likely to be relatively modest in scale.

In an interview for The Spectator conducted in February (before David Cameron’s “renegotiation” of membership terms) Leach spoke of the value of continuing UK pressure for EU reform, and seemed to lean towards Remain. He had still made no public declaration when in mid-April, while chairing an Open Europe debate, he suffered a severe stroke.

However, an email he had sent to a friend in March was subsequently published: “We aren’t ever going to sacrifice our democracy, and the EU cannot ever develop a democracy, as it hasn’t got a demos… So it has to be exit, painful though that may temporarily be.”

Charles Guy Rodney Leach was born in Dublin on June 1 1934. He was educated at Harrow and Balliol College, Oxford – where he took a First in Greats and won all four of the Latin and Greek verse and prose composition prizes (his older brother Colin having won three). He embarked on an academic career, having “never given the slightest thought” to what he might do otherwise. It was the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that jolted him into a wider awareness: he helped to found the Oxford-Hungarian relief fund for refugee camps, recalling later: “This was the real world and it was a revelation… Here were people longing to be free, and it was deeply exciting.”

Thereafter he decided on a financial career and – as many bright young men did in that era – embarked for Canada, where he worked for the brokerage and investment firm of Greenshields in Montreal, under the tutelage of George Cretzianu, a former Romanian finance minister who had escaped from the Russians.

Returning to London, Leach was recruited into NM Rothschild & Sons in 1963 by his Oxford friend Jacob (now Lord) Rothschild, who was a junior partner in the family banking house. As a partner from 1968, and joint head of corporate finance, Leach acquired a reputation as a master of financial complexities: the triumvirate of Leach, Jacob Rothschild and the former barrister Philip (later Sir Philip) Shelbourne took the bank to the forefront of City dealmaking, both in the fast-growing Eurobond market and in mergers and acquisitions.

In the latter sphere, as adviser to the American company Leasco in its bid for Pergamon Press in 1969, Leach was obliged to face down Pergamon’s owner, Robert Maxwell. The Rothschild team rightly suspected false accounting behind Pergamon’s reported profits – and Leach was invited to discuss the matter at Maxwell’s home, Headington Hall, near Oxford. Having received sinister warnings about what Maxwell might be capable of, Leach agreed to attend only on the basis that telephone calls would be made to the mansion at specified times – and if Leach did not answer them, the police would be called. Maxwell was unperturbed by the condition, appearing to think it quite normal – but he treated Leach more respectfully thereafter.

In 1972 Leach first came to the attention of the then taipan of Jardines in Hong Kong, Henry Keswick, when Rothschild was called in to defend Dairy Farm, a local retail chain with valuable property assets, against a hostile takeover bid by Jardines’ subsidiary Hong Kong Land. In a bitter battle the bidder eventually prevailed, but Leach extracted a rich price.

Four years later – having become caught up in tensions between Jacob and his cousin (Sir) Evelyn de Rothschild, by then chairman of the bank – Leach left Rothschilds to work for the Lebanese financier Edmond Safra (who had been a Rothschilds client) in his Swiss-based Trade Development Bank. But when Safra sold most of the business in 1983 to American Express, Leach left for Matheson & Co, the London holding company of Jardine Matheson. Its Lombard Street office became his base of operations for the rest of his life; he was an executive director until he was past 80, squeezing his campaigning activities “between the hours of 6am and 8am and after 6pm, at weekends and on holiday”.

As Jardines’ financial strategist, and a director of its group companies, Leach devised the structure of cross-shareholdings which maintain Keswick family control and protect the group against takeover bids. He was also behind the controversial transfer of domicile of group companies from Hong Kong to Bermuda in the mid-1980s and their stock market listing in London as well as Hong Kong, in anticipation of the transfer of sovereignty to communist China.

In 2006 he returned to the Rothschild fold in a non-executive capacity as a director of Paris Orléans (now Rothschild & Co), the holding company of the French and British branches of the empire. He was a member of the British Library’s board.

Rodney Leach published Europe: a Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union in 1998. He was created a life peer, as Lord Leach of Fairford, in 2006, having been nominated by the Conservative leader Michael Howard in recognition of his European campaigns: one commentator imagined Tony Blair eyeing the list of nominations and muttering: “Not that man Leach, dammit.”

Leach was also a force behind the “No to AV” campaign which in 2011 helped defeat the Liberal Democrats’ proposal to replace first-past-the-post parliamentary elections with the “alternative vote” system of proportional representation.

Leach was an avid competitive bridge player at the Portland Club. He married first, in 1963, Felicity Ballantyne, whom he had met in Canada. The marriage was dissolved in 1989 and he married secondly, in 1993, Jessica Douglas-Home, widow of the Times editor Charles Douglas-Home.

Jessica had worked with Romanian dissidents before the fall of the Soviet empire and was, Rodney observed, “more of a revolutionary than me”: it was she who first urged him to immerse himself in the small print of the Maastricht treaty. She survives him with two sons and three daughters of the first marriage.

Lord Leach of Fairford, born June 1 1934, died June 12 2016

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