It's becoming increasingly clear that Maria Hutchings is a liability. This probably went unnoticed during the 2010 general election as there were 649 other contests going on simultaneously and most in the know didn't seriously expect Huhne to lose Eastleigh. So the focus was elsewhere.
On the 28th February, Eastleigh will be the only election being fought with real national significance and therefore there is much more focus on the Tory candidate. She has been found wanting. She has made a number of statements that have embarrassed her own party leadership (on equal marriage and Europe) and it reached the point last Sunday where Norman Smith the BBC political correspondent was given the runaround by her party minders as they desperately tried to keep her away from the media. Most unedifying.
And Maria has now made some inadvisable comments about state education. The exact quote regarding her own son is:
William is very gifted which gives us another interesting challenge in finding the right sort of education for him – impossible in the state system. He wants to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon.
Now as far as I am concerned this is a silly view. She is saying that her son is "very gifted" and therefore the "right education" cannot be found for him in the state sector. It's worth pointing out here that she is being attacked for saying that surgeons cannot get the right education from the state. She is not technically saying that. She's saying that her very gifted son cannot get the right education from the state. None of us are in a position to know just how gifted he is, whether he has had problems in state schools and whether that was resolved using the private sector.
I would profoundly disagree with the thrust of Ms Hutchings on this topic though. I was educated by the state as were the vast majority of the people who form my family and close friends. Some of them I would class as very gifted and they did not need a private education for this.
But there are two very big reasons why we should not go hard in attacking Maria Hutchings on this. One is on principle and the other is pragmatic.
The principle based one is that I do not think the children of politicians should be used as pawns like this. She shouldn't have said what she did but making her son the focus of our campaign would be wrong. I've seen some suggestion that we should highlight the record of our candidate Mike Thornton's daughter who was educated by the state and happens to be studying medicine at university. No, no, no, no, no! If we do this then the next time a child of Mike (or any other Lib Dem candidate) is linked to a story that is detrimental to our campaigning our argument that children should be kept out of campaigns is weaker.
The pragmatic one is simple. Just over three weeks ago Nick Clegg was asked on LBC if he was going to send his children to state or private schools. He did his best to try and answer that he wasn't sure, that he would try to educate them in the state sector if they could find the right school but would not rule out the private route. He insisted it was a matter for him, his wife and family to decide for themselves. I totally agreed with him and said so on the media (you can listen to me arguing this here on Voice of Russia if you're interested). If we campaign in Eastleigh using Maria Hutchings' children's education in this way then we are announcing open season on Nick Clegg's choice for his children. We cannot defend him by claiming we want to keep his kids out of politics when we have actively used the educational choice regarding one of our opponents children against her in the most high profile by-election we have fought in years.
God knows Hutchings has enough to attack her on without needing to use her children. We should fight the campaign directly, not using children as proxies.
UPDATE: Both Iain Dale and Stephen Tall have also written on this subject with differing views.