On Thursday 1st September, Baron Kirkhope of Harrogate was formally invested as a member of the House of Lords. An MP for a decade, and an MEP for a further 17 years, Timothy Kirkhope had been elevated to the peerage in Cameron’s resignation honours as thanks for his loyal service.
This appointment made it impossible for him to continue in the European Parliament – peers are not allowed to serve as MEPs at the same time. He duly gave notice that he intended to cease serving as an MEP.
When an MEP resigns or dies there is a very specific process to appoint their successor. Because since 1999 they have been elected on a party list system, there isn’t a by-election – instead, the seat is offered to the candidate who was next on that party’s list, so long as they are still a member of the party for which they stood. Formally, the Home Office learns from Brussels that there is a vacancy, then contacts the returning officer for the relevant region – in this case Yorkshire. The returning officer then asks the candidate in question if they are still willing to serve as an MEP and, if the answer is yes, the nominating officer of the appropriate political party has to confirm that the candidate “may be returned as that party’s MEP”.
On that basis, it was reasonably assumed that Alex Story – former Olympic rower, Leave campaigner and two-times parliamentary candidate – would automatically succeed Kirkhope as MEP. Back in 2013, Story (pictured, at the top of this article) topped the selection ballot of party members in Yorkshire, and was therefore second after Kirkhope, the incumbent, on the Conservative list for the region in the election the following year.
However, there is apparently some confusion at high levels of CCHQ over Story’s position. The Yorkshire Post wrote somewhat enigmatically last week that:
“Former Olympic rower Alex Story was second on the Conservative list at the 2014 European elections but it is understood he is unlikely to get the nod.”
The paper instead speculated that either the third- or fourth-placed candidates from 2014 might get the job instead, which would be quite a surprising departure from the normal line of succession.
I’m told some questions have been raised because Story is no longer on the candidates’ list, following the cull earlier this year. However, it’s hard to see why this ought to disqualify him. Not being on the candidates’ list today bars him from seeking nomination in any new election, but as he was on the list in 2013, as Party members in Yorkshire voted for him as their top choice for the European list for their region, and as the Conservative Party duly saw fit to nominate him as second on the list in the election in 2014, his qualification at the time was never in doubt. The seat which is now being reallocated was elected back then, not today. Story is still a Conservative Party member, so he can’t be disqualified on those grounds.
This might all sound rather arcane, but there is a principle at stake. Conservative Party members have the precious right to choose who they want to stand for office under the Conservative banner – with some limits, such as restricting their choice to candidates who have been approved and vetted by CCHQ. In this case, Conservatives in Yorkshire looked at those candidates presented to them and chose Story as the person first in line to succeed Kirkhope. Disqualifying him now on the basis that CCHQ removed him from the list three years later would be to deny them that choice, and to apply a retrospective judgement, which doesn’t seem right.
The final decision will rest with the Party - its Board will decide the succession later this week.