The Prime Minister has suggested MP Nigel Evans could retake the Tory whip, following his acquittal on all rape and sexual assault charges.

David Cameron became the most senior Conservative to congratulate Mr Evans after the independent MP for Ribble Valley was found not guilty at Preston Crown Court on Thursday.

Mr Cameron said: “It is hard to imagine the relief that Nigel must feel after such a traumatic time. I very much welcome what he said on the steps of the court and I think everyone should pay heed to that.

“I’m sure he will want to get on with working with his constituents in the Ribble Valley and, as for the future, I’m sure it’s something he’ll be discussing with the Chief Whip when he returns to Parliament.”

Mr Evans always maintained his innocence. Speaking outside the court he said: “I’ve gone through 11 months of hell”.

The 56-year-old, who was born in Swansea and lives in Pendleton, Lancashire, became deputy speaker in June 2010, a politically neutral role.

The MP resigned as deputy speaker in September last year after being charged.

He was elected as a Tory MP in 1992.

Friends of Mr Evans, from across the political divide, have expressed their relief and delight at his acquittal.

Labour MP Barry Sheerman, a life-long friend of Mr Evans, told the BBC: “His whole character led me to believe that [these charges were false]. He may have been a bit silly, and sometimes a bit stupid, but never malign.

“And I could not imagine him ever being violent. So his friends rallied round him. And we are delighted that he has been cleared of all charges.”

Conservative MP Margot James said the trial had taken a “terrible toll” on Mr Evans.

Former justice minister Crispin Blunt, a friend of Mr Evans, said the Crown Prosecution Service had questions to answer over its prosecution.

He told Sky News: “If you look at how the case was constructed against Nigel, [the complainants] do not regard themselves as victims and they didn’t actually want to be in court. This was, to a degree, quite an artificial prosecution. I think anyone who was aware of the circumstances of the case against Nigel would not be remotely surprised that he was acquitted of all charges.”

Tory MP Mark Pritchard tweeted: “Nigel Evans cleared on all counts. Lancashire Police and Crown Prosecution Service have some serious questions to answer.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “The complainants in this case provided clear accounts of the alleged offending and it was right that all of the evidence was put before a jury.”

Lancashire Police said all the evidence had been carefully scrutinised and the force remained committed to investigating allegations, no matter how historical and regardless of the status of the alleged offender.