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.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.