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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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