Maria Hutchings under fire again as doctors protest over state school comments

Eight doctors criticise the Conservative Eastleigh by-election candidate after she claimed it would be "impossible" for her son to become a surgeon if he went to state school.

With parliament in recess, even more attention will be concentrated on the Eastleigh by-election in the last full week of campaigning. All Conservative MPs have been instructed to make at least three visits to the constituency before polling day on 28 February and it's not hard to detect increasing nervousness in the Tory camp about the party's chances of taking the seat off the Lib Dems. Interviewed on The Sunday Politics yesterday, Conservative chairman Grant Shapps, who defended Tory candidate Maria Hutching's comments on state education, did not sound like a man confident of winning. The Lib Dems' local advantage - the party holds all 36 council seats in the constituency - is beginning to tell, with the party estimated to have three times as many helpers as the Tories. 

The row over Hutchings, who claimed that it would be "impossible" for her son to become a surgeon if he went to a state school, is rumbling on this morning after eight doctors signed an open letter criticising her comments. The medics, all of whom were state educated, wrote: 

 

As GPs and surgeons who all started their education at state-funded schools, we are proof that Maria Hutchings' assertions are not true. The education system in this country provided us with the knowledge and skills we needed to follow our dream career.

It's such a shame that Conservatives like Maria Hutchings want to do our education system down instead of sending the message that whatever your background, you can achieve what you set out to do in life.

The imbroglio is a good example of why, as I wrote the day after Hutchings was selected as the Conservative candidate, a significant number of Tories thought she was the wrong choice for the seat. Hutchings, who fought and lost Eastleigh in 2010 (Chris Huhne increased his majority from 568 to 3,864), was viewed as exactly the kind of political novice that the party should avoid. Nothing that has happened since suggests this judgemenet was wrong. 

David Cameron and Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings leaflet residential homes in Eastleigh, before the imminent by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.