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.