The chances of a summer EU referendum have gathered momentum, with Downing Street briefing the last Thursday in June as the preferred date. The publication of the voting regulations and sample ballot paper on Wednesday provided further indication of a desire to press ahead with a vote at the earliest convenience.
But as indicated by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond during his evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Tuesday, everything will hinge on a successful outcome at the crunch Brussels summit in February.
Perhaps with this at the forefront of his mind, Cameron announced on Wednesday that he was cancelling a planned trip to Scandinavia, instead making his way to Brussels for further talks with President Juncker.
Was this a sign of a standoff in negotiations? Not necessarily – indeed a deal could be closer than many think. A number of EU leaders are apparently growing weary of the “British problem”, desperate for it to be sorted out so they can instead focus on the Schengen agreement and the migrant crisis – which are expected to dominate discussions at the European Council in March.
Bunch of gaffes?
Away from Europe, the Government endured a tough week, with criticism over its handling of corporation tax. Yet the post-mortem of PMQs became dominated by calls for Cameron to apologise, after he referred to those living in the “jungle” camp in Calais as a “bunch of migrants”.
The seemingly pre-prepared nature of the line sent the press gallery into overdrive; was it clumsy phrasing or something altogether more sinister? Journos were quick to draw analogies to the dead cat strategy used by Michael Fallon during the general election - suggesting that the Conservatives were seeking to deflect attention away from HMRC.
A New Economics
The Labour Party also had a busy week. John McDonnell’s debate series, ambitiously entitled ‘The New Economics’, kicked-off at The Royal Institute on Tuesday, with Whitehouse duly in attendance. The Shadow Chancellor’s inaugural speaker was Mariana Mazzucato – Professor of the Economics of Innovation at Sussex University and member of Labour’s star-studded economic advisory committee.
Mazzucato gave a forceful and impressive lecture, urging the audience to dismiss notions of the public sector as dull and bureaucratic. Instead, she articulately spoke of the “entrepreneurial state” and its ability to deliver economic growth, citing cutting-edge technology initially developed by NASA which has provided the basis for our smartphones.
Looking ahead, the list of upcoming speakers make eye-watering reading for Corbynites: Nobel Prize winning Joseph Stiglitz and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis are both due to speak in March. Despite being criticised by some as indulgent navel-gazing, the sessions are a good idea; helping to open up the “black box” of party policy and engage the public in critical thinking. Whether it will automatically translate into electoral success for the Opposition remains less certain.