Everyone loses: Eastleigh candidates deal with their own personal demons

All the main candidates in the Eastleigh by-election were dealing with their own personal crises today, after they were taken to task for comments on housing, private school and killing Margaret Thatcher.

Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings was in the most serious position, as she tried to limit the damage of weekend comments suggesting state schooling was not acceptable for gifted children.

The Tory said one of her children was "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 cardiorespiratory surgeon".

Comment: Hutchings is utterly wrong on state schools

The comment sparked howls of outrage from state-educated doctors. Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra authored a letter with a fellow surgeon and six GPs which attacked the Hutchings comments.

"As GPs and surgeons who all started their education at state-funded schools, we are proof that Maria Hutchings' assertions are not true," it reads.

"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."

Liberal Democrat Eastleigh borough council leader Keith House said Eastleigh's state schools had been rated 'excellent' by Ofsted and were good enough for Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton's daughter to secure a place at Imperial College London to study medicine.

"Maria's claim that it's 'impossible' to get a good state education in Eastleigh is  an insult to the teachers who work hard to give our children the best start, and to the parents who are glad to have such good schools that are part of the local community," he said.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "This just shows how out of touch the Tories are with what's happening in our schools.

"They are all over the place – while Michael Gove's department says the local schools are good, Maria Hutchings just insults them."

But Tory chairman Grant Shapps tried to put a brave face on proceedings, stressing that most of the party candidate's children were being state educated.

"Every parent wants the best for their child, and whether that's Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband or Maria Hutchings or myself I think it's perfectly reasonable to look for the best option for your children," he told the BBC Politics show on Sunday.

"But it's a fact that she's got four children and two or three of them are in the state system, I think rather illustrates that she believes in it."

The mention of Clegg is a not-so-subtle dig at the deputy prime minister, who refuses to rule out sending his children to private school.

Meanwhile, Labour candidate John O'Farrell was trying to explain a passage in his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better in which he wished Thatcher had been killed by an IRA bomb and another in which he said he wished Britain had lost the Falklands war.

"In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of excitement at the nearness of her demise and yet disappointment that such a chance had been missed," he wrote.

"This was me – the pacifist, anti-capital punishment, anti-IRA liberal – wishing that they had got her. 'Why did she have to leave the bathroom two minutes earlier?' I asked myself over and over again."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan did his best to put some underspin on the comments when they came to light this weekend.

"John O'Farrell is a comedian who, in bad taste, has written a book about this in the 80s and 90s. I'm sure if you asked him now whether he agreed that, that you know he would say no," Khan said.

Thornton was struggling with more local issues, although that will be of little reassurance to the Lib Dem candidate, given voters are more likely to be moved by housing and green belt debates than old comments about a former prime minister.

The former councillor confirmed he had voted for 5,000 new houses on green spaces in the constituency, seemingly contradicting the Lib Dem policy of protecting green spaces.

Asked whether he voted for the policy, he replied: "Of course I voted for them… We need the building."

The Conservatives turned a PR victory into a disaster, however, with a series of simultaneous identical tweets highlighting the comment.

"The Lib Dem Eastleigh campaign is in turmoil as the party's candidate admitted that he 'voted for' 5,000 new houses on green spaces," the official account of the party's by-election campaign tweeted.

The tweet was then repeated by a series of Tory MPs in a disastrous use of social media which prompted mockery online.

The Tory campaign is also being attacked for claiming Hutchings is a local candidate, given she tried to be selected as a candidate in Mid Norfolk, Stevenage and Basildon in 2006 alone.