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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
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

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss