PMQs: Osborne makes his debut

A potentially significant Prime Minster's Questions today - and the Prime Minister wasn't even there.

Because with David Cameron in Italy on pre-EU referendum lobbying duties, it was down to Chancellor of the Exchequer and recently-entitled First Secretary of State George Osborne to take his place at the Despatch Box.  Facing him for Labour was Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn.

And Mr Osborne got off to a rather ill-judged start.  Although not having taken PMQs before, he has famously prepped every Tory Leader since John Major for the ordeal.  You might therefore have thought he would've chosen not to preface his response to Mr Benn's first question about Islamist extremism with a poor, pre-cooked quip about "no Benn but plenty of Bennites" standing to be Labour leader.

But having got that out of his system, he soon recovered and handled Mr Benn's five follow-up questions - all on a sombre themes - calmly and in detail.  And the Leeds Central MP deserved at least as much credit for the statesmanlike manner in which he posed them.  Should he have thrown his own name into the Labour leadership hat?  Perhaps but academic, since nominations closed on Monday.     

Moving on, Mr Osborne dealt forcibly with SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson's weak attempt to pin blame for the delayed Chilcot Report on him and David Cameron, pointing out that the Iraq War inquiry is independent.

Questions from the Opposition benches largely returned to non-party political themes after that, including child abuse and the stabbing of a teacher in Bradford.    These were interspersed with invitations from his own side to remind the House of this morning's positive unemployment figures - all down to that "long-term economic plan."  And there were a couple of references to Mr Osborne's beloved Northern Powerhouse project.

Overall, a reasonable debut for someone increasing viewed as a strong contender to answer PMQs as the real Prime Minister before the end of this Parliament.  Further stand-in opportunities will come his way before then.       

At 7-1 with Paddy Power, he might well be worth a punt.