13:35, March 19 316 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-19 13:35:11
Sir Richard Body obituary

Sir Richard Body, the former Conservative MP for the broad acres of south Lincolnshire, claimed descent from the 18th-century agricultural innovator Jethro Tull and stood himself in a traditional parliamentary lineage that is all but extinct: that of the independent-minded country squire.

He would have fitted right in with the backwoodsmen who brought down Robert Peel over the Corn Laws in 1846. But by the time he retired from the House of Commons in 2001 his sort of backbencher, with deep and sometimes eccentric passions, many embedded in his agrarian roots, was on the way out. “I wasn’t ambitious,” he said. “I have a horror of creeps.”

His interests were anything but predictable. Body, who has died aged 90, was opposed to capital punishment and the nuclear industry, against the use of pesticides and the fluoridisation of the water supply, pro animal welfare and organic farming, anti National Farmers’ Union and uncompromisingly and eternally against the European Union. He opposed the City bankers who planted pine forests for tax purposes and he called for the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, saying it was not needed because, after all, there were no ministries for clothing or grocery shops. In a party of Anglicans, he was a Quaker and in a party of businessmen and landowners, he was a defender of underpaid farmworkers and smallholders. “I’d sooner have a farmworker’s vote than a farmer’s, if he’s a bad employer,” he declared.

Such independence and obduracy did not make him many friends among Tory ministers. Peter Walker, the agriculture secretary in the early 80s, said he was no better than a socialist, while Body retorted that he had never been allowed to complete a sentence uninterrupted when meeting the minister. During the Maastricht debates of the 1990s, an exasperated John Major exclaimed: “When I hear the name Body I hear the sound of white coats flapping.” The remark was partly based on the MP’s somewhat other-worldly appearance: he was a tall and gangly figure with a quizzical, distracted expression. He was something of a loner at Westminster and usually wore country tweeds – not really Major’s sort of suburban Tory.

Body’s independence derived from a comfortable background based on an estate in Berkshire that had been in the family for 300 years: indeed his roots were in the prosperous arable lands west of London rather than the open plains of his Holland with Boston (latterly Boston and Skegness) constituency 150 miles away. Born in Eton, the son of Lt-Col Bernard Body and his wife, Daphne (nee Corbett), he was educated at Reading school and then the Inns of Court School of Law in London.

His barrister’s training lent a sort of remorseless, lawyerly logic to his arguing, and his paternalistic sympathy for working people derived from chairing the East London Poor Man’s Lawyer Association throughout the 50s. Later he would campaign remorselessly against the exploitative gangmasters who shipped unemployed people from the Midlands (in those days) to work in the fields of East Anglia.

After contesting two unwinnable seats, he was first elected for Billericay in Essex in 1955, losing the seat in the general election four years later, before being returned in 1966 for the Lincolnshire seat he would hold for the next 35 years. Throughout his time in the Commons he remained a farmer himself, of livestock, particularly pigs, in the village of Stanford Dingley in Berkshire.

Although, as he said, he started off as an NFU nark, he was soon disillusioned by the union’s support for the large agri-businesses that were squeezing out smallholders. Annoyed by Body’s criticisms, the union eventually passed a motion of no confidence in him. It did little good: he continued to campaign as the pseudonymous and subversive “Muck Spreader” columnist of Private Eye, the magazine edited by his Berkshire neighbour Richard Ingrams.

Latterly he became a member of the Commons select committee on agriculture and, briefly, its chairman in 1986 (the year he was knighted) when, against all precedents, he published a minority report opposing, as he saw it, the committee’s complacency about the health hazards arising from the use of pesticides.

He was a free marketeer, instinctively opposed to the Common Market and its farming subsidies because of the distorting effect on British trade and Britain’s traditional overseas markets: the Falklands war of 1982, he contended, was partly caused by Argentinian resentment at the loss of meat exports. He co-chaired the Get Britain Out campaign before the 1975 referendum on EEC membership and naturally gravitated to the Maastricht rebels two decades later – the source of Major’s “white coats” jibe as the group threatened his government’s slender majority.

At one stage, in response to the disciplining of eight rebels, Body resigned the party whip and threatened to contest a byelection in his constituency as an independent. This caused the party chairman Norman Fowler to grovel to the local association, pleading with them not to deselect him and provoke a contest, which would have been a disaster when mountainous majorities were being racked up against Tory candidates.

Even after the Labour landslide of 1997, Body could still cause trouble in the name of quirky causes. He claimed that a writer named Robert Henderson had been bugged by the government after writing an article in a cricket magazine arguing that only “unequivocal Englishmen” should be selected for the Test team. He had stood unsuccessfully for leadership of the right-wing Monday Club in the hope of weaning it away from its obsession with immigration and towards free market economics.

After leaving the Commons at the 2001 election, he resigned from the Tory party and joined Ukip, only to fall out with his new associates by suggesting that he would actually continue to vote Tory at the next general election. His Ukip membership lapsed in 2008 and he subsequently joined the English Democrats.

In the circumstances, it was no surprise that Body was president of the William Cobbett Society, dedicated to the works of the 19th-century polemicist. He also served a term as chairman of the Ruskin Society and was the author of a number of books, mainly on the politics of agriculture and the iniquities of the EU.

He married Marion Graham in 1959. She, and their son, Richard, and daughter, Jane, survive him.

Sir Richard Bernard Frank Stewart Body, politician, born 18 May 1927; died 26 February 2018