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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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