Eastleigh: Red faces and acrimony ahead of by-election

The Tory candidate has gone off-message on state schools, while the Lib Dems are in the middle of a planning nightmare

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.

Suggested Topics
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice