Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate speaks about Cameron's controversial honours

Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate with Lady Kirkhope outside their home in Scotton near Knaresborough.
Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate with Lady Kirkhope outside their home in Scotton near Knaresborough.
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First there was Lord Willis of Knaresborough, now we have Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate.

Not that the former Timothy Kirkhope is entirely comfortable with his new title, he tells the Harrogate Advertiser's Graham Chalmers in an interview at his home in Scotton near Knaresborough.

New peer- Lord Kirkhope, who is leaving the European Parliament to join the Lords

New peer- Lord Kirkhope, who is leaving the European Parliament to join the Lords

The man formerly known as Timothy Kirkhope MEP is a bit worried about including the word “Harrogate” in his new title.

Despite surviving in the less than genteel world of politics for nearly 40 years, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, as he is now known, is concerned that the town itself should realise how seriously he is taking his new life peerage - especially the name.

“I’m not sure people will like it, pinching the name of Harrogate. It was meant to be a positive gesture towards a place I love and know well and live near. I know Lord Willis took Knaresborough for his title but I wasn’t out to go one better than anyone by choosing Harrogate.”

After being Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and Humber for 17 years, the Newcastle-born politician and lawyer will leave the European Parliament next week to become Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate.

The heraldic title of Baron Kirkhope brings with it the right to have a coat of arms but the new life peer is concerned to take that path may exhibit some “pomposity.”

“I could have gone back to my Newcastle roots for my title but I have represented Yorkshire in various positions for more than 30 years. The peerage means all my four sons can now be called ‘honourable’. I’m not sure they are interested in that.”

Perhaps some of the anxiety at what should be good news stems from the manner of its arrival for this composed 71-year-old who combines friendliness with quiet steel.

David Cameron’s resignation honours, which saw the announcement of his life peerage, was not without controversy.

Accusations of cronyism raged in the press. But a look at the new peer’s CV shows a man who has worked hard out of the spotlight in a wide variety of unglamorous but important roles seeing to the details, making the deals, getting the job done in sensitive areas such as Europe, immigration and counter-terrorism.

Perhaps that’s exactly what the former Prime Minister saw in him, too.

“It was unexpected but I was very grateful to get the peerage. I was the only currently active national politician on the list.

“I’ve had no honours before, which is unusual for a Lord. You would usually have an MBE, then a knighthood and so on.

“I’d known Cameron since he stood for leader in the party, though I didn’t support him. I’d worked very closely with him over the years.

“I wouldn’t mind being called a ‘crony.’ The definition of ‘crony’ is a close friend or companion who works hard for someone. I’m happy with that.”

“Cameron rang me to tell me about the honours and said he had given me lots of tricky jobs to do. All my jobs in politics have been hard. I’ve survived by being firm but fair.”

There have been lighter moments over the years, however, one or two of them shared with the Queen during his days as vice-chamberlain of the Royal Household, the Queen’s link to the House of Commons.

“I was the chap who wrote the letter each day which kept the Queen informed about what had happened. I would take it over to Buckingham Palace for her to sign. She would read it over a Dubonnet .

“She’s had tough years but the great surprise about the Queen was that she had a fantastic sense of humour.

“I remember when I told her I was moving to a new job in immigration she said “out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Although his deepest family roots lie in the small, rural parish of Kirkhope near Selkirk in Scotland, Timothy is a champion of all things Yorkshire and Harrogate, in particular.

He has lived with his wife Caroline, now Lady Kirkhope, in the village of Scotton in Knaresborough in a converted farmhouse for more than 10 years.

Having qualified as a solicitor in a Newcastle firm in 1973, Lord Kirkhope has never quite given up his legal practice.

He likes to work hard but he’s retained a sense of humour, something he says is essential if you are to stay in politics for any length of time.

First elected as Member of Parliament for Leeds North East in 1987, his fourth attempt to become an MP, Timothy has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999.

Although a supporter of the Remain camp during the EU referendum, he was handpicked for a major role in ECR (The European Conservatives and Reformists) - a political group for Eurosceptics which was set up in 2009 in the European Parliament at the behest of David Cameron himself.

In total, he was leader of the Conservative delegation for six years at a crucial time for Britain’s future in the EU.

His steady hand proved popular with colleagues of all parties and nationalities.

At one point his fellow Euro parliamentarians even voted him the top British MEP and fifth top MEP overall.

Diplomacy seems to be in his blood but it’s something he had no choice but to learn over many years working in the hot spots of politics.

“I’ve concentrated in home affairs and justice and border controls and immigration. I may be almost unique in that I’m one of the few people who’ve been at every level of the legislative proceedings.

“I’m bringing a lot of knowledge to the Lords and I hope I can use it. The Lords plays a vital role in keeping the Commons in check.”

Although vastly experienced, he himself admits his most invaluable lessons were learnt during the turbulent years of the early 1990s when the Conservative government was deeply divided on the issue of whether to sign the Maastricht Treaty for European integration.

“I was Whip for five years under Thatcher and Major during Maastricht. I learnt so much about human nature on the political side of life. All my jobs have been hard. As a Whip you have to outthink people. ”

Lord Kirkhope may have endured but the faultline he helped repair all of 25 year ago has recently fractured seemingly for good.

Although he’s worked with new Prime Minister Theresa May and says he likes her, he has no qualms about defending her predecessor in public.

“I’m very grateful to David Cameron. I think he had a genuine belief in reform and wanted to take the ‘nasty’ tag out of the Conservative Party.“

“Things are becoming too polarised in British politics. It’s worrying.

“A lot of the talk on Brexit is about trade but I think security is the more important issue. It’s vital to our survival.”

Seeing the bigger picture may be part of the reason for Timothy’s longevity at a high level.

And it’s being a self-confessed “strategist” that provides another reason for the Harrogate part of his new title.

Who else would have worked the followimg conundrum out?

“As my family roots are in Scotland when I got the news about the peerage I already knew that my Liberal Democrat colleague Archie Kirkwood is called Baron Kirkwood of Kirkhope.

“I couldn’t be Lord Kirkhope of Kirkhope but for me to have taken the title of simply Lord Kirkhope would have diminished Archie’s title.

“I couldn’t let him think I’d nicked his name.”