Phil Woolas says legal fight has hit 'end of the road'

Mr Woolas said he was "very disappointed" as he left the High Court

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Former Labour MP Phil Woolas has admitted defeat in his battle to overturn a court ruling which stripped him of his Commons seat.

"It is the end of the road - I am out," the former immigration minister said as he left the High Court.

It means a by-election in his Oldham East and Saddleworth is likely soon.

Mr Woolas narrowly won the seat in May but the result was declared void by an election court which ruled he had lied about his Lib Dem rival.

The specially convened election court ruled that comments in campaign material suggesting Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins had tried to "woo" the votes of Muslim extremists, clearly amounted to an attack on his personal character and conduct.

The court ruled he was guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983 and barred him from standing for elected office for three years, as well as fining him £5,000.

Mr Woolas took the decision to judicial review - arguing the attacks had been political - not personal but three High Court judges upheld the court's ruling on Friday, finding he had been rightly found guilty of "illegal practice".

Costs shared

Lord Justice Thomas, Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies concluded that he was entitled to have one of the findings against him set aside but statements made by Mr Woolas about Mr Watkins during May's general election "were not of a trivial nature".

"They were a serious personal attack on a candidate by saying he condoned violence by extremists and refused to condemn those who advocated violence," they said.

Start Quote

I have no plans to get back into Parliament”

End Quote Phil Woolas

But Lord Justice Thomas said the court considered the "fair" order to make in relation to the costs was for each party to bear its own costs.

Leaving the court Mr Woolas said he "very disappointed" not to be allowed to stand again in the by-election but said the judges' hands had been "tied" by what he called an outdated law.

He said there was no avenue open to him to mount a further challenge: "That is the end, I am out - which I think is unfair and, more importantly, my 70,000 voters will think it is unfair."

"I don't regret anything that has been said. My argument is that the way in which my election leaflet - and this was one leaflet over 15 years of campaigning that I've been thrown out of Parliament for - my argument was and is that by wooing a certain type of vote that that is a political comment. I never said the Liberal Democrat supported violence - of course that is not the case."

'Clean by-election'

Asked if he would seek to return to Parliament after the three-year ban is up he said: "I have no plans to get back into Parliament."

Mr Woolas's Lib Dem rival Elwyn Watkins, who has already been selected as the Lib Dem candidate in Oldham, said he was pleased by the judges' verdict but said he had "no personal animosity" toward Mr Woolas.

ANALYSIS

No MP has seen their political career end in quite this way since 1911.

This ruling establishes a modern precedent - and it's about far more than the past or the future of Phil Woolas.

It could radically change the way elections are fought.

In future candidates will know that if they say something that is inaccurate about an opponent, if that can be proven to be a personal, rather than a political statement, then even if they win they could have their victory taken from them.

That will sharpen many minds and could change the way elections are fought in future.

"This is not against Phil Woolas, it is about cleaning up politics," he said, adding he looked forward to a "fair and clean by-election".

Oldham East and Saddleworth does not currently have an MP, but a by-election had been delayed by the Commons authorities, pending the outcome of the court case.

Normal practice is for the party which held the seat to move the writ for a by-election within three months of the vacancy occurring. A by-election must be held within 19 working days of the writ being issued. Lib Dem sources expect it to be held in January.

Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC: "The court has made its judgement, the judgement has been accepted, the right thing now to do is look forward to the by-election that will take place in due course so that the people of Oldham have a new member of Parliament."

A party spokesman said Mr Woolas had been "administratively suspended" and they would now consider "whether further action is appropriate".

'Lack of judgement'

But Conservative MP Michael Fallon said the fact Mr Miliband had appointed Mr Woolas as shadow immigration minister before the court case concluded showed an "appalling lack of judgement".

"He should clearly have been suspended from the start. He had considerable support across the rest of the Labour party - a member of the shadow cabinet, John Healey, was at the High Court with him and so on. So they really have been at sixes and sevens on whether or not to support him."

Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins: "I am very happy that the judges have come to a clear conclusion"

Mr Woolas retained his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in May - beating Mr Watkins by just 103 votes.

But the result was declared void by a specially convened election court in November, which ruled that Mr Woolas had made false statements as he sought to hang on to his seat during a closely fought campaign.

The court heard his campaign team had set out to "make the white folk angry" during the campaign.

Mr Woolas had argued that the statements were about the "political conduct" of his Lib Dem opponent - not his personal character - and suggest the election court's interpretation was inconsistent with free speech.

Mr Woolas's case is the first time an MP has been found guilty of making false statements of fact in an election petition since 1911.

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