The Conservatives were struggling yesterday to defuse a row that threatened to undermine their campaign to win the Eastleigh by-election, after their candidate appeared to criticise state schools in the constituency.
Labour's leader, Ed Miliband, joined the attacks against Maria Hutchings after she said she needed to go private to help her 12-year-old son achieve his dream of becoming a surgeon. "William is very gifted, which gives us another interesting challenge in finding the right sort of education for him – impossible in the state system," the Tory candidate said. "He wants to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon."
The comments caused a flurry of protests, as critics pointed out that at least three secondary schools in the Hampshire constituency had earned praise from Ofsted inspectors in recent years. The row enlivened an increasingly acrimonious battle to succeed the former Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne, who resigned in disgrace two weeks ago.
Labour's candidate, John O'Farrell, said he had set up a state school when he had been concerned about education standards in his area a decade ago. And Mr Miliband, who was campaigning in Eastleigh yesterday, seized on the comments and used his Twitter account to accuse Mrs Hutchings of insulting state-educated voters. He said: "Comments from Maria Hutchings totally wrong. An insult to every state school in the country. And all of their pupils."
Keith House, the Liberal Democrat leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, said Mrs Hutchings had proved how detached from local people she was. He said: "Although it's down to every parent to choose the right school for their child, it's simply not true to say that the education in Eastleigh is not good enough for our children.
"Ofsted have rated several local schools 'excellent'; they were good enough for Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton's daughter to study medicine at Imperial College London, and they are good enough for the majority of Eastleigh parents who are proud to have such excellent schools to choose from."
The schools outburst is the latest problem faced by a woman who, clutching a photo of her autistic elder son, John Paul, once confronted Tony Blair on live TV over the closure of special schools and the link between autism and the MMR jab. Presented by Tory campaign managers as "a local candidate you can trust", Mrs Hutchings was described as "a straight-talking candidate" by David Cameron during a visit to the constituency last week. But she had caused consternation with her off-message views, particularly on gay marriage and abortion.
A Conservative spokesman said yesterday: "Maria Hutchings wants all children to get the best possible education – that's why she's backing Michael Gove's reforms to bring back rigour to the state education system after 13 years of Labour.
"Maria has campaigned tirelessly to help parents of children with special educational needs get the best education for them."
The row over Mrs Hutchings's choice of school overshadowed Labour's attempts to promote plans for a "mansion tax" and a 10p tax rate. The contest initially appeared to be a straight fight between the Tories and the Lib Dems, who held Eastleigh with a 3,864 majority at the 2010 general election. Labour remained in third place in the first poll in the constituency, but its 19 per cent rating was almost double the 2010 figure.
The Lib Dems' chances of holding the seat could be damaged by a bitter housing row, as Hampshire County Council is likely to approve a planning application tomorrow for 1,400 houses to be built on a golf course and high-grade farmland where sheep and cows are bred. Residents in the neighbouring village of Botley and the hamlet of Boorley Green are fuming over the Lib Dem-dominated Eastleigh Council's decision to push through with the development.
Not only do they want the area to remain unspoilt, they also argue that there is a political conflict of interest. The council bought a 999-year lease for the ground and buildings of the nearby Ageas Bowl, home of Hampshire County Cricket Club. About £40m of taxpayers' money will be spent on the lease and the construction of an 18-hole golf course and four-star hotel. The council decided to risk public money on the development when it was judged that the addition of a luxury complex could help the cricket ground win the rights to host lucrative test matches.
Campaigners argue that additional housing is needed to support the Ageas proposals, which is why the council is so keen to go ahead with building the homes. Their construction would also mean that the council would eliminate a competing golf course. Sue Grinham, the head of the Botley Parish Action Group, claimed that the Liberal Democrat by-election candidate, Mike Thornton, who is also a councillor, "has voted for the housing every time" the plans have been discussed by the local authority. Ms Grinham also questioned Liberal Democrat claims that they are "defending our green sites".
Another resident, Phil Rood, added: "This is an election issue. There is a vested commercial interest in building these houses, so the council can't be objective when they consider this planning application."
Mrs Hutchings argued that "bulldozing over our green spaces" is not the right way of going about building more family homes.