Has anyone seen Maria Hutchings? Lib Dems go on the attack

Tories accused of hiding Eastleigh by-election candidate after she stays away from Radio 5 Live debate.

Update: David Cameron has accused the BBC of behaving "badly and stupidly" by empty-chairing Hutchings, reports the Telegraph's Michael Deacon. A Beeb staffer replied that Hutchings could have done the debate and still had time to join Cameron on his visit to a local warehouse. 

As someone who first came to public attention berating Tony Blair live on national TV, one might assume that Maria Hutchings would never run shy of publicity. But when Radio 5 Live held its Eastleigh by-election debate this morning the Conservative candidate was a notable absence

The official explanation is that the hustings clashed with David Cameron's second visit to the constituency, but it's likely that the Tories simply didn't want Hutchings anywhere near a microphone (Eastleigh Lib Dems have responded with the "missing" poster below).

Having provoked a long-running row with her suggestion that it would be "impossible" for her son to become a surgeon if he went to a state school, the candidate has become a liability. To some of us, this comes as no surprise. The day after Hutchings was selected, I wrote that she was "exactly the kind of political novice that the party should avoid". But the narrow window in which to select a candidate meant that she was adopted by default. 

With the betting markets all pointing to a Lib Dem hold (the latest odds give them a 79.37 per cent chance of victory), the Tories appear increasingly resigned to losing the seat. When they do, it will suit them to pin much of the blame on Hutchings. But the truth is that Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems are formidably strong (they hold all 36 council seats in the constituency), was always going to be a struggle for them to win. 

Conservative Eastleigh by-election candidate Maria Hutchings with David Cameron at the B&Q headquarters in Eastleigh, Hampshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.