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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.