Eastleigh by-election: Maria Hutchings and John O'Farrell spark controversy

Prime Minister David Cameron with Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh Prime Minister David Cameron has visited Eastleigh to campaign with Maria Hutchings

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Two candidates in the Eastleigh by-election have become embroiled in controversy over comments on state schools and Margaret Thatcher.

Tory hopeful Maria Hutchings provoked a backlash after suggesting her son would need private schooling to be a surgeon.

Meanwhile, Labour candidate John O'Farrell's comments from a 1998 book - in which he said he was "disappointed" IRA bombers did not kill the then PM in the 1984 Brighton attack - have emerged.

The parties have backed the candidates.

The by-election, set to take place on 28 February, was triggered after Chris Huhne admitted evading speeding points and resigned as Liberal Democrat MP for the Hampshire seat.

Huhne, 58, is expected to be sentenced for perverting the course of justice this week.

'An insult'

Mrs Hutchings prompted controversy after saying: "William [her son] 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."

Grant Shapps said Maria Hutchings was a "regular person who believes in the area" and not a professional politician

The comments prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to write on Twitter: "Comments from Maria Hutchings totally wrong. An insult to every state school in the country. And all of their pupils."

A Conservative spokesman later said: "Maria Hutchings wants all children to get the best possible education - that's why she's backing Michael Gove's reforms to bring back rigour to the state education system after 13 years of Labour.

"Maria has campaigned tirelessly to help parents of children with special educational needs get the best education for them."

In an interview with the BBC's Sunday Politics programme, Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps pointed out that Mrs Hutchings, her husband and two of their three children, had gone to state schools.

He said it was "perfectly reasonable" for parents to look for the best options for their child.

'Bad taste'

In his book, entitled Things Can Only Get Better, published in 1998, Mr O'Farrell wrote: "In October, 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of excitement at the nearness of Margaret Thatcher's demise. And yet disappointment that such a chance had been missed."

Five people were killed and 34 injured during the attack on the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference.

John O'Farrell John O'Farrell is a life-long Labour supporter

Former Conservative chairman Lord Tebbit, who was injured in the blast along with his wife, responded angrily to Mr O'Farrell's selection.

"Ed Miliband should repudiate this incontinently voiced moral reprobate who tries to excuse murder as a weapon against those who won democratic elections time after time against the rag-bag remnants of a once great Labour Party," he told the Mail on Sunday.

Mr O'Farrell, writing on Twitter after the comments came to light, said: "So the Mail have gone for me on something I already volunteered about myself, which I said in 1984, and acknowledged was wrong as I said it."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "I'm sure if you asked him now whether he [Mr O'Farrell] agreed with that [the comments] now he would say no."

He said the book was written 20 years ago, adding: "Some of it is in bad taste and should not have been said, but he was writing a book that was at the time, very funny, very witty."

He said the comments were "probably bad humour - him trying to be funny, but clearly not funny".

Mr Miliband, on a visit to Eastleigh on Saturday, defended the choice of the author and satirist as the party's candidate.

Sadiq Khan said John O'Farrell's comments in a book were "probably bad humour, him trying to be funny, but clearly not funny"

"John O'Farrell is showing he's a breath of fresh air, frankly - a breath of fresh air for this by-election and a breath of fresh air for politics and I tell you what you know he may have written funny novels but he's utterly serious about trying to win this by-election and trying to serve the people of Eastleigh and showing that there is a different way forward for Eastleigh," he said.

The Labour leader said he was "determined to fight for every vote".

Prime Minister David Cameron, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and UKIP's Nigel Farage have already visited Eastleigh.

The Lib Dems held the seat with a 3,864-vote majority in 2010.

The candidates in full:

COLIN BEX - Wessex regionalists

DAVID BISHOP - Elvis Loves Pets Party

JIM DUGGAN - Peace Party

RAY HALL - Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party

HOWLING LAUD HOPE - Monster Raving Loony William Hill Party

MARIA HUTCHINGS - Conservative

DIANE JAMES - UK Independence Party

DR IAIN MACLENNAN - National Health Action Party

KEVIN MILBURN - Christian Party "Proclaiming Christ's Lordship"

JOHN O'FARRELL - Labour

DARREN PROCTER - Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

DANNY STUPPLE - Independent

MIKE THORNTON - Liberal Democrats

MICHAEL WALTERS - The English Democrats - "Putting England First!"

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