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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition