Parliamentary seats could be left vacant for the six months until the general election, if there are further defections from the Conservatives to Ukip, the Commons leader, William Hague, has suggested.
The Conservatives are braced for the possibility of further defections if they lose the Rochester & Strood byelection on Thursday to their former MP Mark Reckless, who switched allegiance to Ukip.
Reckless has suggested that a few Tory MPs are considering defecting if he wins, out of fear for their seats at the general election next May.
Hague, the former foreign secretary, said there was no fixed rule on what would happen in that case and it would be up to parliament, where the coalition has a majority, to decide. He said the resignation of the Speaker Michael Martin in the last parliament meant a seat was left open for five-and-a-half months.
None of the parties appear keen to fight any more byelections before May, as they distract from the main campaign and are a drain on finances. They have already had to throw resources into Clacton, which delivered Ukip’s first MP, Douglas Carswell, and Heywood and Middleton after the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin, in which Ukip came a close second to the incumbent party.
Speaking on the byelection campaign trail outside Strood, Hague said: “There is no absolutely fixed rule. One seat at the last election was left vacant for about five months before the general election. That is up to the majority of the House of Commons. Normally, byelections haven’t been held within three months of a general election. There is a no fixed rule about it. I can’t give a definite ruling. Michael Martin’s seat was left vacant for five-and-a-half months, which is the longest I can recall, but there is no fixed rule about that.”
Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, said it was “getting to the situation now where we get towards Christmas and beyond Christmas where it would be pretty ridiculous to be fighting byelections and you would just let that seat roll on into May, and let people have their say five months on.”
Asked whether he was in touch with any Tory waverers thinking about defecting, Nuttall said: “I’ll leave that kind of thing to Nige.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010