Ed Miliband gets the better of Cameron in first PMQs

A confident Ed Miliband puts David Cameron on the ropes over child benefit.

Prime Minister's Questions is rarely a good indication of how a leader will perform at election time. William Hague frequently won his exchanges with Tony Blair but still suffered a landslide defeat in 2001. Gordon Brown's PMQs performances improved dramatically towards the end of his premiership but did little to boost his dismal poll ratings.

Yet, as all leaders testify, this single half-hour encounter every Wednesday remains a key determinant of party morale, and a single slip — "We saved the world" — is rarely forgiven. With this in mind, Ed Miliband can be more than satisfied with his performance today.

He began on a statesmanlike note, asking David Cameron for an update on his phone call with Barack Obama about the death of the aid worker Linda Norgrove. Then, after stressing his support for the coalition's reforms to sickness benefit (part of "responsible opposition"), he went on the offensive over the government's child benefit cuts, leaving Cameron, usually such an assured performer, more than a little rattled.

To the charge that he had punished middle-class families ("the deputy headteacher", "the police inspector"), the Prime Minister could only offer his stock reply that the £155bn deficit trumps all. To those families set to lose nearly £3,000, this will sound like a cold and technocratic answer.

Cameron made no sustained attempt to challenge the concept of universal benefits and, as a result, his words lacked intellectual clarity. But elsewhere there was what sounded like a cast-iron pledge to retain the winter fuel allowance in its present form. The much-anticipated war on the welfare state may not materialise after all.

But the defining moment came when Cameron challenged Miliband to explain his defence of middle-class benefits. The Labour leader's sharp response — "I may be new at this game but I think I should ask the questions and he should answer them" — revealed the luxury of opposition. Miliband will soon be forced to make tough choices of his own: on tax, strikes and the deficit. But with the largest cuts since the 1920s on their way, it is Cameron who will be on the defensive every Wednesday afternoon.

PS: One more positive conclusion from today: Ed Miliband can tell jokes. In reference to the shambolic Tory conference, he quipped: "I bet the PM wishes the BBC blackout had gone ahead." It was almost enough to make up for that clunky "train set" joke.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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