Life peer, commentator and former editor of The Times

Born: July 14, 1928; Died: December 29, 2012.

William Rees-Mogg, who has died aged 84, was editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981 and one of the most influential commentators on the centre right of politics. In the days of Edward Heath, he was in the vanguard of the Tory modernisers but was later an arch-critic of John Major, belittling his abilities and taking him to court over the Maastricht Treaty.

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Although there were few figures more establishment than Lord Rees-Mogg, he did have a radical streak. At The Times, he made the reporting more investigative and the opinion more spiky and confrontational. One of the most celebrated leaders published under his editorship criticised the jailing of the Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger for a minor drugs offence under the headline: "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"

Lord Rees-Mogg was born in Somerset and educated at Charterhouse, where he was head of school. He then went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the union.

In 1952, he joined the Financial Times where he worked until 1960, part of the time as chief leader writer and also assistant editor.

In 1960, he joined the Sunday Times where he was successively city editor, political and economic editor and deputy editor. It was while he was at the Sunday Times that he wrote a famous article in 1964 headed A Captain's Innings in which he called for Alec Douglas-Home to resign as Prime Minister, which he did shortly afterwards.

This was regarded as one of the most influential pieces of post-war British political journalism although Mr Douglas-Home rather spoiled that boast when he said later that he had already decided to resign before the piece appeared.

However, Lord Rees-Mogg's reputation was assured and in 1967 he became editor of The Times. His leadership there was radical although one of his less glorious achievements was to stubbornly defend former US President Richard Nixon against the Watergate evidence filed by The Times's Washington staff as the scandal that led to Nixon's resignation unfolded.

Lord Rees-Mogg was still at the helm of The Times in 1981 when Rupert Murdoch launched his takeover bid for the paper. The staff had formed a group called Journalists of the Times which opposed Mr Murdoch and possibly ill-advisedly, Lord Rees-Mogg assumed leadership of the group and unsuccessfully sought an alternative buyer which, in his view, would have guaranteed the paper's editorial independence. Later, he threw his high reputation behind Mr Murdoch, and the staff felt betrayed, although when Mr Murdoch was successful, Lord Rees-Mogg resigned to make way for Harold Evans.

Lord Rees-Mogg went on to become vice-chairman of the BBC's board of governors and chairman of the Arts Council. He was also chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, during which time he criticised Coronation Street as a relic of the Macmillan era that bore little resemblance to modern society. He said the famous soap did not have enough ethnic minorities in it.

Despite these other interests, Lord Rees-Mogg never left journalism and continued to write columns that could register high on the Richter scale and were particularly influential during the Thatcher and Major governments. In an article in The Times after he had stepped down as editor, he described John Major, Conservative Prime Minister for most of the 1990s, as "over-promoted, unfit to govern and lacking self-confidence".

"His ideal level of political competence would be deputy chief whip or something of that standing," he added. Sir Norman Fowler, the then the Tory party chairman, denounced the criticism as "the authentic voice of the Patrician Tendency – pure snobbery".

Lord Rees-Mogg did not give up, however, and went on to challenge the legality of Mr Major's ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in an action described by one critic at the time as being in character: "Showy, mischievous, slightly absurd, but with a dash of plausibility."

However, in July 1993, three High Court judges unanimously rejected Lord Rees-Mogg's contention that the Major Government could not lawfully ratify the Maastricht Treaty because Parliament had not approved the social protocol. They ordered Lord Rees-Mogg to pay the costs, estimated at hundreds of thousands of pounds.

He was made a life peer in 1988 and in his maiden speech, advanced an eccentric constitutional theory that claimed power for the Upper House to block Commons legislation on the machinery of justice.

Although he sat in the Lords as a cross-bencher, he twice unsuccessfully fought a parliamentary seat as a Conservative candidate: Chester-le-Street in 1956 and 1959.

He is survived by his wife Gillian, three daughters and two sons, one of whom, Jacob, is a Conservative MP.