David Cameron has attacked the BBC for behaving "badly and stupidly” after it suggested Tory by-election candidate Maria Hutchings had dodged a 5 Live radio debate.
On Thursday morning the audience in Eastleigh booed when they were told Hutchings would not be joining the Labour, Lib Dem and Ukip candidates on the panel.
The Tory candidate was replaced by George Hollingbery, the Conservative MP for the nearby Meon Valley constituency, who had to answer for the party on her behalf.
The Conservative Party has argued the BBC left it too late to ask Hutchings to appear and it would have meant her cancelling a campaign day with the prime minister, who was in Eastleigh. But the BBC insists the candidates were all invited last week.
Following a speech in Eastleigh, Cameron is reported to have been asked by a BBC reporter why Hutchings missed the radio programme.
“She was with me at a very important meeting in a business that’s the sort of beating heart of Eastleigh… and she’s been doing hustings up and down the constituency," he said.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the prime minister told the reporter: "Maria has done hustings all over the constituency."
“I think the BBC has behaved badly and stupidly over this from everything I’ve heard about it, but she has been doing hustings.”
Asked if the party was hiding Hutchings, who has made some controversial remarks during the campaign, said: “We’re not hiding her away, she’s right here.
“This is a totally got up thing by the BBC. You know you’re not the most important thing in this by-election – the candidates are.”
Conservative police minister Damian Green also criticised the BBC's handling of the issue. He told Sky News: I know the BBC is making a big fuss about this, but the BBC can be a touch self important and I think they are making more of it than it's worth."
Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron said: "The Tory candidate is clearly running scared. She's refusing to show up to a hustings with the people she says she wants to represent, proving her claims to stay in touch are empty and worthless.
"It is clear that the Tory candidate is so at odds with her own party leader, they are resorting to a desperate game of hide and seek."
The by-election on February 28 was called after Huhne resigned upon admitting he perverted the course of justice. Huhne - who faces prison when he is sentenced - held the seat for the Lib Dems at the 2010 general election with a relatively small majority of 3,864.