Labour had expected that Thursday's Barnsley East by-election, when the return of a new Labour MP will wipe out the Government's one-vote Commons majority, would trigger a critical change in Commons standing committees.
Standing committees give line-by-line examination of Bills, and the loss of a government majority on new committees could have threatened trouble for the Finance Bill, the Police Bill and the National Health Service (Primary Care) Bill.
But Sir Fergus Montgomery, Tory chairman of the committee that fixes the political balance of standing committees, yesterday took the advice of Commons clerks on the by-elections in Barnsley East and Wirral South, the latter caused by Mr Porter's death.
He told BBC radio: "So far as Wirral South is concerned... at the moment that is regarded as a Conservative seat. Until we have the by-election there ... it means no change."
Labour's Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, challenged that view, saying: "Clearly there is going to be an argument about that." He argued that a Commons resolution, passed in January last year, ruled that when the Government lost its majority because of by-election defeat, or defection to another party, it should lose its majority on standing committees.
But Sir Fergus has been advised that the resolution does not include the critical word "death" - the Government cannot lose its standing committee majority through the death of an MP. That gives the Government added incentive to delay the Wirral South by-election for as long as possible.
There are no rules on by-election timing, but there is a convention that the writ for a three-week election campaign should not be delayed longer than three months after the death of an MP, suggesting a late February deadline for the poll.
If the writ is not moved in the first week of February, Labour can be expected to force the issue to a vote.
The clerks' advice to Sir Fergus, if sustained, will take pressure off the Government and help the Prime Minister soldier on to 1 May if he wants to.
Conservative disarray continued yesterday in spite of the Prime Minister's On the Record warning that rebels were playing into Labour's hands.
The backbench dissident Teresa Gorman said she would bring forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill next month offering a referendum choice between the European Union as a trading group or as a federal state.
Michael Howard, Home Secretary, on the election trail in Barnsley East, said: "The one thing for everyone to remember, if they're really interested in the future, is that the Conservative Party is the only party which is prepared to defend Britain's interest in Europe."Reuse content