Peter Slipper.

Peter Slipper ... "The sexual harassment claims against Slipper are a civil claim." Photo: Andrew Meares

It was only last week that Andrew Wilkie, trying to deal himself back into relevance, warned the government it may need him yet.

The Tasmanian declared that if the government did not make semantic changes to the watered-down poker machine reforms it put together after reneging on their original deal, then he would become ''a ticking time bomb'' between now and the next election.

''If they come back to me needing my support again, as far as poker machine reform goes, the price will be mightily higher,'' he said.

Wilkie gave the government until the close of business on Friday to meet his demands but then extended the deadline over the weekend.

At the time, he did not know about the allegations against the Speaker, Peter Slipper, which became public on Saturday. Wilkie just cited the uncertainty surrounding the Labor MP Craig Thomson and the possibility another MP could fall ill.

As of now, the government is not rushing back to Wilkie cap-in-hand, offering him the world, but neither is it confident about how this unfolding disaster will end.

One gets the feeling that Julia Gillard is going to spend the bulk of her time in Singapore and Turkey this week somewhat preoccupied.

In an era of politics where the presumption of innocence has been abandoned, it should be remembered the sexual harassment claims against Slipper are a civil claim, and the allegations that he misused Cabcharge vouchers are being assessed by the police, but not yet a formal investigation.

They are not even close enough to demand his ousting from the Parliament, but enough to fuel opposition claims that it is alleged conduct unbecoming of the holder of such an office and demands that he step down until the issue is resolved.

If Slipper were to resign as Speaker - and he would have to resign if he wanted to stay in the chamber and vote - and move to the crossbenches, Labor's deputy speaker, Anna Burke, would fill the chair.

To maintain minority government and pass legislation, Labor would then need four votes. These would come from Adam Bandt, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and either Slipper or Wilkie.

If Slipper, who stepped aside yesterday, has not returned to the Speaker's role in a fortnight, he would not be able to vote when Parliament resumed. In this case, Burke would be required to use her casting vote to break a 74-74 tie in the event of Wilkie siding with the opposition, Bob Katter and Tony Crook.

As is being mooted internally, Thomson, too, could be shifted to the crossbenches until matters concerning him were resolved. That would be five crossbenchers on which the government would have to depend.

Consequently the government does not want Slipper to resign, preferring to wear the odour of tainted support. Slipper maintains his innocence, showing no inclination to jump. All roads now point to budget day, May 8, the next time Parliament sits.

The Slipper affair will cruel the momentum the government began building last week with a strong defence of its surplus target and a good policy announcement on aged care - all against the backdrop of growing policy inconsistency and internal unrest in the opposition.

Now there is a chance that while journalists are entombed until 7pm in the annual budget lock-up, Abbott will move a no-confidence motion in Slipper. To succeed, this would need the support of at least Windsor or Oakeshott, but both said yesterday they were inclined to allow proper legal process to take its course.

Abbott has been previously reluctant to move no-confidence motions he cannot win, meaning no decision will be made until closer to the day.

Windsor, who held a balance of power position in the Greiner government, told this column that when Greiner was the subject of an adverse finding by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1992, he stood by the-then Liberal premier because the appeal process had yet to be exercised. Greiner's colleagues were not so charitable and he was forced out, only to be cleared later by the proper process.

Technically, therefore, Labor should survive this latest disaster but what's left of its image will take another hammering. Having said that, the Coalition should not get off scot-free either. By its own admission, Slipper was a protected species for the many years he was a Coalition MP during the Howard government and in opposition. They did nothing about it, continued to preselect him and Abbott was prepared to use his support to form minority government.

The truth is, Slipper has been the ticking time bomb. Gillard happened to be holding it at the wrong moment.

Phillip Coorey is the chief political correspondent.