Maria Hutchings, the Tories' Sarah Palin, is a sign of things to come

The new generation of Conservative MPs and candidates are more socially conservative than their predecessors.

David Cameron finds himself supporting a candidate in the Eastleigh by-election who disagrees with him on Equal Marriage, on membership of the EU and who has some pretty extreme views on immigration and abortion. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators call on the party to wake up and get behind their 'modernising' leader.

But in fact, the evidence is that the latest brand of Tory MPs have more in common with Maria Hutchings, "the Sarah Palin of the south coast" as one person referred to her the other day, than they do with the leader of the Tory party.

Blogger Mark Thompson did an excellent analysis of how Tory MPs voted in the Equal Marriage debate and discovered that the 2010 intake were more likely to have voted against the proposal than the 2001/2005 intake. There has, I think, been a tendency to imagine that the Conservative vote was split on age grounds and it is true that Tory MPs elected in the 1980s or 90s were the most likely to vote against. But the fact that the 2010 intake are more socially conservative than their immediate predecessors rather suggests Hutchings is increasingly the rule, rather than the exception.

Under the microscope of a by-election, Tory high command can control their candidate's media appearances and her expression of ‘unfortunate’ views – witness the unsuccessful attempts of the BBC's Norman Smith to interview Hutchings last Sunday - but as Conservative constituency associations select more and more candidates in the same mould (especially where they fear the effect of UKIP on their vote), it's going to be harder and harder to hide their opinions from scrutiny.

It’s easy to forget where the Tory party is heading, as the moderating influence of the Lib Dems prevents them doing all they would want. But as the Tea Party tendency takes over in the Tories, so the centre-ground opens up. Eastleigh will be a great test for both the Liberal Democrats and Labour of whether they can take advantage of this political vacuum.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

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

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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