Down and Out in Eastleigh

I commend the following thoughts to our esteemed Prime Minister. After the controversy of coming out on what this author sees as the wrong side of the “Mantel vs Middleton” issue, it would be advisable to check your fire for a moment. Take stock of the nature of half-informed, impromptu statements and learn the lessons therein. DO NOT, for example, under any circumstances, return from a goodwill trip to the subcontinent and immediately unleash another can of worms.

Too late. Taking to the hustings in Eastleigh with Conservative hopeful Maria Hutchings, it only took him a matter of hours to jump all over the BBC and the perceived slight surrounding this 5 Live radio debate, supposedly featuring the main party candidates. And UKIP. And the Lib Dems… Scorn for these two political rumps aside however, they actually managed to turn up. From such an important event, Hutchings’ absence was noted and questioned.

You’ve possibly read the details already. Cameron was very quick to attack the BBC on the grounds that Hutchings had not been informed of the debate and that yesterday was an impossibility for such an affair given that she was doing the public rounds with him. Which is to say, trying to take sustenance for her ailing campaign from all that public affection for the PM. Perhaps a less ineffective strategy than you might think, after a fairly successful international tour.

Accusations of political skulduggery abound. Hutchings has essentially been a litany of poorly calculated statements on anything from state education to how best to manage rioters and there was a sense that her date with Cameron was also a convenient excuse to avoid the heat of debate and potential embarrassment. The Conservative Party has hastened to paint the BBC as making much ado about nothing but I’m very sceptical.

For one thing, recent tarnishes aside, the BBC is in my mind the epitome of a fine broadcasting model and I’d go to war over it. Long after I’ve used the ashes of the NHS to choke the fires of every other inferno-consumed institution of repute on these isles, I’ll be defending the BBC. Sentimentality aside however, it seems plainly ridiculous that they would forget to invite the government candidate and they have every right to feel cheated by the Tories.

As do we. Open debates are hugely important to the democratic process and although Cameron and company suggest the BBC is being far too up itself, I would suggest the corporation’s indignation is rightly on our behalf. Given the much hailed importance of this by-election (the notional and relative importance of such a thing in this country raising an amused smirk), it is utterly laughable that the Tories have put up such a risky candidate, one who they can’t seem to rely on.

Political incompetence has been a serious threat to the health of government lately and this episode is doing little to improve things. It may sound cynical, but the least Hutchings could do is maintain discipline with a mind to winning. With Cameron leering over her for the better part of Thursday it seems order has been recovered to some degree but it’s probably too late. Eastleigh is a hard fought constituency between the Tories and Lib Dems, and polls predict a victory for the latter again.

This is despite the by election being forced by Lib Dem Chris Huhne’s disgrace and a broader feeling of that party as being somewhere between a death rattle and actual rigor mortis. I don’t yet buy into the notion that victory in Eastleigh will resuscitate the brand, but it would be a vaguely impressive sign of their desperation to survive. Not to mention a strongly condemning statement of the Tories’ boundless capacity for tripping over their own feet.

The curiosities of the exit polls will be there to dissect in good time, notably that of UKIP’s condition. Given that Nigel Farage exists in his own mind perpetually in the land of imminent political rampancy, it would be interesting to see how the public actually feel. And I’m looking forward to Labour’s jeering from the sidelines like one tends to look forward to a gut shot. Ah, the Great British by-election. Tickets are free.

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