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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New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.