Eastleigh candidate's hustings pullout sparks Cameron row with BBC
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The prime minister has become embroiled in a row over the non-appearance of his party's Eastleigh byelection candidate at a hustings and has had to deny she is being hidden away because she is a "loose cannon".
Maria Hutchings was pilloried by rival candidates and audience members when she pulled out of a BBC radio hustings on Thursday morning.
Critics claimed the Tories were trying to hide away a candidate who has become a liability after making headlines for controversial remarks on subjects ranging from state schools to gay marriage.
The Conservatives said she could not make the hustings because she was joining the prime minister on a visit to a high-tech cable manufacturer in Eastleigh.
Asked after the factory visit why Hutchings had not been at the hustings, David Cameron said: "She was with me at a very important meeting at a business that's the sort of beating heart of Eastleigh. She's been doing hustings up and down the constituency."
A local BBC television reporter pointed out that he had been at both – and so she could have been too. Cameron told him that he must have been "late" for the factory visit and continued: "I think the BBC has behaved badly and stupidly about this from everything I've heard.
"My understanding is that we were discussing with you for ages about the timing of the hustings and the fact that Maria wanted to be with me for this meeting. Frankly never mind arguing about the form, let's look at the substance. The substance is who is the best candidate for Eastleigh. Maria is hard-working, lives locally, is a mother of four, has business experience. That's what matters. Don't get involved in a great argument about form, look at the substance."
Asked if she was being hidden away because she is a "loose cannon", Cameron said: "We're not hiding her away, she's right here."
He added: "I do think this is a totally got-up thing by the BBC. You're not the most important thing in this byelection. The candidates are."
Hutchings said: "I had the huge privilege of the prime minister visiting this company. It's incredibly important for Eastleigh. I needed to be here to prepare and speak to the people in this business."
Neither Cameron nor Hutchings would speak to the national media.
In an interview with local ITV, Cameron denied that he was making his second visit to Eastleigh because he was worried at how the byelection was going.
He said: "It's a sign of how much I back Maria and our campaign. I'm always a believer that if there's a political fight going on you throw yourself into it. We've got a great candidate, she'd do a brilliant job for the constituency. She backed my plan to get on top of the deficit, get the economy moving, reform welfare, give us a fair immigration system. She backs all those things, I want her in the House of Commons beside me voting for those things."
On the issue of the missed hustings he said: "She wanted to be with me here at this important business that employs hundreds of people, this is a complete red herring."
Hutchings said: "Hustings are important, I've done them everywhere … I might have loads of energy, I might say it how it is but I can't be in two places at one time."
The prime minister was also asked about a colourful visit by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on Wednesday when he said all the Lib Dems had done was make a U-turn on tuition fees and sing a song about it. Cameron said: "Boris has a brilliant way of putting things and often there's a lot of truth in what he says." But, he added: "I'm here to talk about the positive things the government is doing."
Chaired by Victoria Derbyshire for 5 Live, the disputed hustings took place at a leisure centre in the Hampshire town, beginning at 10am. The prime minister began speaking to workers at noon, though he and Hutchings did spend some time with workers before his Cameron Direct session began.
The Liberal Democrat party president, Tim Farron, led the criticism of Hutchings. He said: "She's refusing to show up to a hustings with the people she says she wants to represent, proving her claims to stay in touch are empty and worthless.
"You have to ask why the Conservative machine keeps trying to hide her away. This is a candidate who says on her leaflets that she puts local people before political ambition, yet the moment she gets to share the spotlight with her party leader all that is forgotten."
Lib Dem insiders said they had been contacted about the hustings on 13 February so the Tories had time to make sure there was no diary clash.
The audience at the hustings in Eastleigh booed when it was announced that Hutchings would not be attending. One expressed anger that she could not be questioned over comments suggesting that state schools were not good enough for one of her "gifted" children.
The Labour candidate, John O'Farrell, scored a neat point when he said it did not matter that she wasn't there because the Tory's coalition partners, the Lib Dems, were.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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