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Tuesday 5 February 2013

Eastleigh – A Problem Called Maria

There is to be a by-election in Eastleigh, following the departure of Chris Huhne. So the parties must choose their candidates, and that choice will be most critical for the Lib Dems – who will hope to retain the seat, despite Huhne’s downfall – and the Tories, who will be looking to take back the seat that they lost after the death of Stephen Milligan in 1994. But here a problem enters.

Young Dave’s jolly good chaps already have a candidate in place, and the lesson of Crewe and Nantwich suggests it is best to stick with the person that the local parties and associations know. There was much urging for Cameron to ditch Edward Timpson and bring in someone better known and more charismatic. He resisted those calls, and he was right. Timpson won, and is still there.

The Lib Dems did cave in to calls for a higher profile candidate in Crewe and Nantwich, and little good it did them. So they, too, have a lesson to learn, and that will almost certainly result in a local name going forward, with the hope that this builds on the party’s success in cornering 40 of the 44 council seats. So far, so routine, but the Tories’ sitting candidate could spell problems.

Because that candidate, who lost to Huhne last time round when he increased his majority by around 3,000 votes, is one Maria Hutchings. Who she? Well, Ms Hutchings first came to public attention back in 2005, when she confronted Tone during a Channel 5 debate. She was concerned that the school attended by her autistic son was going to be closed down.

That Essex County Council, who ran the school, said there were no plans to close the school, and it was a Tory run authority, did not deflect Ms Hutchings in her personal opposition to the then PM, so it should have surprised nobody when, the following year, she fetched up on Young Dave’s jolly good A-list, despite her claims to have been a “lifetime Labour supporter”.

Since that moment, she and her family have moved to Eastleigh, where she was duly installed as Tory candidate. And in a General Election campaign, that past, with its apparently less than apolitical attack on the then PM based on a false premise, would not have been cause to stop and think. Now it might be, as would any and every action she has taken in the meantime.

So Young Dave and his jolly good chaps – who have yet to decide on who will represent them at Eastleigh – have to make their choice. Do they stick with the person that local Tories know and support, or do they bin her in favour or a higher profile outsider with none of the baggage? Removing Maria Hutchings would be a high risk strategy. Leaving her in place could be equally so.

Cameron needs to ask himself one question: do I feel lucky. Well, do you, Dave?

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