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

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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