The Week In Westminster: I see a vacancy, and it's not Fiona Jones's

FIONA JONES, the former Labour MP for Newark, was the surprise winner of the week, leaving vast quantities of egg on the faces of both main parties. Her successful appeal poses a nightmare this weekend for Madam Speaker who, last month, declared the Newark vacancy under the rules of the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

The Act makes no provision for an MP to be reinstated if a conviction is quashed and the Speaker's Office has been searching in vain for legal precedents to guide Ms Boothroyd. Technically, a by-election should be held, but the smart money must be on the Speaker finding a way to invite Ms Jones back to the Commons without a by-election. Whether Ms Boothroyd has powers to reverse, unilaterally, the vacancy is unclear. A possible route is for the House to pass a resolution empowering the Speaker to declare the vacancy void.

Ms Jones, whose local party has been suspended, was not exactly popular in the constituency and was hung out to dry by Labour's Millbank headquarters, which refused to fund her legal expenses for the appeal.

In the unlikely event of a by-election, natural justice must require the Labour leadership to endorse her candidacy and pull out all the stops to help her hang on to her wafer-thin majority.

But the Conservatives'Chief Whip, James Arbuthnot, is also in the doghouse for jumping the gun by breaking with precedent and seeking to move the writ for the by-election before Easter. If Mr Arbuthnot's move had been successful we would already be in the middle of a by-election campaign. A writ is normally moved by the party which previously held the seat and, as this column two weeks ago, such breaches of convention usually come back to bite with a vengeance.

Mutterings from backbenchers, already grumpy at Mr Arbuthnot's lacklustre performance, predict a change of job when William Hague reshuffles his team in June. If Mr Arbuthnot is moved it will cost him financially, as he is one of only three opposition MPs, in addition to Mr Hague, who is paid an official salary on top of his MP's pay. Tory MPs are talking up David Maclean, a former whip and Home Office minister, as a possible successor.

u

QUESTIONER OF the week award goes to Sir Michael Spicer (C West Worcestershire) who, having spent years giving John Major a hard time as a Maastricht rebel, put his skills to good use by flooring John Prescott when he stood in for Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions. Sir Michael used the infinitely more effective tactic of a one-sentence question: "Will he give an absolute guarantee that the withholding tax will not be introduced in this country?"

Unusually, the normally assured, combative and confident Mr Prescott lost the plot and stared in silence, open-mouthed at Sir Michael. To put it bluntly, Mr Prescott had no idea what this tax was (any more than 99 per cent of MPs) and burbled gibberish about the poll tax and local authorities.

Luckily for Mr Prescott the Tory Deputy Leader, Peter Lilley, stood next and stuck to his scripted question on fuel duty. Mr Lilley's response highlighted the disadvantage of being tied to a pre-planned question. Sir Michael had created an opportunity for Mr Lilley to go for the kill. Instead, Mr Prescott continued to roar incoherently like a seriously injured elephant until the Speaker called time at the end of his worst half-hour since the general election.

Bad numbering, marking and tagging of his briefing file by officials was as much to blame for the disaster, as he turned page after page, looking in vain for the correct answers. But this was the first time in nearly two years that any trouble has befallen Mr Prescott, and, like an elephant, he never forgets who causes him pain. He will recover quickly and retribution will surely follow.

u

BARONESS YOUNG has not only caused trouble for homosexuals but she has also thrown a spanner in the works for the Government's policy on devolution.

By defeating the second reading of the Bill to reduce the age of gay consent she has ensured a constitutional crisis for the new Scottish Parliament before it has even been elected.

The Bill now falls and cannot be reintroduced until the next session of Parliament in November. In order for the Parliament Act to apply, the Bill must be reintroduced in exactly the same form as before. But by November the question of the age of consent in Scotland will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament. This means that the Bill to be re-introduced in the Commons would be different to its predecessor and would have to begin its passage all over again through both Houses.

Liam Fox, the Conservative constitutional affairs spokesman, raised the matter in the Commons as a point of order, demanding a statement from Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to clarify under what legislation the Government intends to implement such proposals.

There is nothing in law to stop the Government from imposing the Bill on Scotland, thereby enabling Royal Assent to be given under the terms of the Parliament Act next January, but it would hardly be an auspicious start for devolution. Ministers were noticeably reticent on the question of using the Parliament Act and Baroness Young may yet have the last laugh.

Most Conservative MPs just want the issue to go away - especially the closet gay MPs who fear exposure. They are dreading yet another debate where they will be forced either to run a mile from the voting lobbies or to vote against their consciences.

u

GORDON BROWN, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, may be taxing the nation by stealth but the Tory Treasury spokesman, Francis Maude, did not tax Mr Brown at all during Treasury Questions.

Mr Maude seems to have given up challenging Mr Brown altogether. At the start of Question Time, Mr Maude only managed two brief interventions against Mr Brown's deputy, Alan Milburn, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But halfway through, he left the Conservative front bench altogether and did not return.

MPs were amazed that Mr Maude had deserted his post and left the remainder of the session in the hands of his juniors. There has already been much criticism of Conservative MPs for failing to attend but, up to now, at least the opposition spokesmen have sat it out.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Mission Planning and Control Solutions Systems Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? A pro-act...

MBDA UK Ltd: System Design Capability

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? The small...

Recruitment Genius: Production / Manufacturing Operative

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading garage door manufacturer are curr...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software / Solution Sales

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a thri...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific