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
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape