Decision day for popular rebel on Major's 'barmy' list: Patricia Wynn Davies reports on the fate of Sir Richard Body

WEEKS OF speculation over whether the maverick Tory Sir Richard Body will relinquish his seat will end tonight with a crunch meeting of his Holland with Boston constituency association executive.

It will be another bad night for John Major, whether Sir Richard bows out to prompt a new year by- election or - as has become a distinct possibility - he continues as MP but resigns the Tory whip.

His executive could do a lot worse than encourage the latter course. Mr Major's overall Commons majority would be reduced to 16 on some issues, but it would keep a Conservative MP in place until he could be deselected at the next election.

Moreover, the Prime Minister might have included him on his list of 'barmy' MPs, but Sir Richard is popular in his Fenland seat. That is partly due, ironically, to his repeated opposition to the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty, which ensured Sir Richard spared no effort turning in a near- faultless performance as a constituency MP.

'When I hear the name Body, I hear the sound of white coats flapping' was the particular opprobrium singled out for him by Mr Major. But Sir Richard now seems to relish the tag, claiming that a world without 'barmies' is an infinitely duller one.

The more serious difficulty is Mr Major's reassertion of authority in the wake of the Maastricht revolts and the message, emphasised at the party conference, that public disagreements will not be tolerated.

Rupert Allason, the MP for Torbay who failed to turn up for the Maastricht confidence vote this summer, had the whip suspended. Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, would probably like nothing better than to do that to Sir Richard Body. But he has, meanwhile, had to suffer the annoyance of begging his constituency officers to urge the MP to stay. A by-election would be infinitely more damaging, almost certainly reducing the majority to 15 whether or not Sir Richard decided to stand, as has also been rumoured, as an independent.

An old-style right-wing monetarist, the roots of Sir Richard's stalwart opposition to the Maastricht treaty go back to when he chaired the Get Britain Out (of the European Community) referendum campaign in 1974. But despite the repeated resignation hints, the 66-year-old former barrister, farmer and pig breeder enjoys being an MP.

His high profile, however, has brought him the offer of a lucrative publishing contract for economics books, from the Adamantine Press in Copenhagen. Sir Richard has already penned four books on farming, one of which led the former agriculture minister, Peter Walker, to label him a socialist - one of many occasions when Sir Richard, outwardly the classic county Tory, has appeared to buck the system.

He is a long-standing member of the Carlton Club, but the affinity with the Conservative establishment ends there. Apart from the contradiction of being a Tory and an anti-hanging and anti-nuclear power Quaker, he is the Prince Charles of the agriculture world. Reputedly Private Eye's original 'Old Muckspreader' columnist and a hate figure of the National Farmers' Union, he backs traditional, ecologically- sensitive methods and has waged vigorous campaigns for animal welfare and against the use of pesticides and fluoride.

In the wake of the salmonella and listeriosis crises, he called for the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There was, he reasoned, no Ministry for Clothing Companies or Grocery Shops.

(Photograph omitted)

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