DAVID Cameron was forced to defend Tory candidate Maria Hutchings after she came under fire for pulling out of a by-election debate.

Mrs Hutchings had been due to attend the BBC 5Live event in Eastleigh yesterday morning, but cancelled her appearance in order to visit Prysmian Cables and Systems alongside the Prime Minister.

The Conservative duo faced a barrage of questions from the media following Mr Cameron’s meeting with staff.

But the Tory leader defended Mrs Hutchings’ decision.

Mr Cameron said: “Maria has been doing hustings up and down the constituency.

“She wanted to be with me at a very important meeting at a business that is the beating heart of Eastleigh, employing hundreds of people.

“The substance of the issue is Maria is the best candidate for Eastleigh.”

Mrs Hutchings said: “I had the huge privilege of the Prime Minister visiting this company, which is a hi-tech company that is incredibly important for Eastleigh.

“I needed to be here in order to prepare and speak to the people in this business.

“I couldn’t be in two places at once.”

But Mrs Hutchings’ fellow by-election candidates hit out at her controversial decision.

Liberal Democrat hopeful Mike Thornton said: “I’m absolutely astounded that the week before polling day any candidate would pass up the opportunity to speak to residents.

For me, that sums up the state of the Conservative campaign.

“Mrs Hutchings says that the two events clashed but she could easily have attended both.”

Labour candidate John O’Farrell said: “It is incredibly arrogant of David Cameron to say that it’s the candidates who are the most important thing in the byelection.

“The most important thing in this by-election is the voters.

They deserve better than a choice of a Tory who’s had to be gagged or another Lib Dem who says one thing and does another.”

The row broke out after Mr Cameron’s second visit to the constituency in the space of just eight days.

Fresh from a visit to India, the PM returned to Eastleigh after talking to 800 B&Q workers last Thursday.

Yesterday he held a similar Cameron Direct session with about 300 staff at Prysmian Cables and Systems – the same firm that welcomed the Tory leader’s right hand man George Osborne last week.

His latest appearance came less than 24 hours after Mayor of London Boris Johnson hit the streets of Fair Oak to canvas voters alongside Mrs Hutchings.

Speaking to the Daily Echo after his public grilling, Mr Cameron revealed that he had brought some positive news back from India – where he was joined by University of Southampton vice-chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam – to help kick-start the Hampshire economy.

The Prime Minister said: “One of the key features of the Hampshire economy that was on the trip was Southampton University, who are very enthusiastic about making sure that we attract bright students to Southampton, making sure Southampton teams up with other universities around the world.

“We should see our universities as growth engines and I think Southampton can be exactly that.

“Also there were very good deals right across the board in terms of defence, automotive, oil and gas and there are many Hampshire businesses in supply chains for those companies that will benefit.”

Asked whether his second visit to the constituency was a sign of Tory nerves over Thursday’s byelection, Mr Cameron said: “It’s a sign of how much I back Maria.

“I’m always a believer that if there’s a political fight going on you throw yourself into it.

“We have a great candidate, we are running a great campaign and we are all pitching in for a great result.

“We are fighting to win it. We’ve got a winning candidate, a winning team, a winning campaign and we are throwing everything we can at it.”

Moments later, Mr Cameron was gone, hustled out of the back door by his entourage – but not before another mention of Britain’s standing in the “global race”. But it was clear that the Prime Minister currently has a very different race at the forefront of his mind – and the allimportant finishing line is now just six days away.

Eastleigh by-election headlines