David Cameron will deliver a "red-meat announcement" on Britain's future in the EU, which he believes will satisfy all but a hard core of Conservative MPs, when he makes his much-delayed keynote speech on Europe in the next few days.
Amid uncertainty over the exact timing of the jinxed address, senior government sources told the Observer that the prime minister intends to make the speech this week – possibly on Monday – if a resolution has been found to the Algerian hostage crisis.
"He wants to go ahead as soon as possible. There will be something in it which will pacify all but the hard core," said the source. "But he could deliver the same kind of speech that Margaret Thatcher gave in Bruges in 1988 and around 25 MPs would not be happy. It is not possible to please everyone."
Advanced briefing of his speech, which he had been scheduled to give in Amsterdam on Friday but had to postpone because of events in Algeria, made clear that he would demand repatriation of some powers from Brussels to Westminster if he wins a majority at the next election. The new deal would then be put to the British people in a referendum.
Journalists were told that he would speak of "growing frustration" with the EU among UK voters which needs to be addressed if this country is not to slide towards the EU exit door.
But insiders say he will spell out in greater detail his approach – including one significant announcement – while refusing to give a "shopping list" of powers he wants to repatriate. The shopping list idea was rejected after warnings from other EU leaders, Number 10 officials and the Foreign Office that he would have no guarantee of bringing home the goods.
It is understood that he foresees a two-stage approach to renegotiation. In the short term he is expected to hold out the prospect of limited progress on issues that do not require reopening EU treaties. These would include shielding the UK from any adverse effects of the nascent Banking Union being planned among eurozone member states and opting out of elements of police and justice co-operation, while remaining involved in others.
The idea of the UK demanding a short-term reopening of the EU treaties is understood to have been ruled out when the other EU states are preoccupied with creating an effective fiscal union.
However, Cameron believes the second phase of renegotiation may be possible if and when the EU as a whole announces a full-blown intergovernmental conference, which in all probability would not begin until 2015 at the earliest. Many EU leaders say, however, that they see no need for such a conference.
On Saturday, in a sign of further trouble ahead, veteran eurosceptic Bill Cash said any attempt to recast existing treaties to suit the UK would not work, not least because other member states would not meet most of Cameron's demands: "We will have to leave the existing treaties in favour of a new treaty creating a new political and trade agreement, something similar to the arrangements the Swiss enjoy."
Cameron's policy is not only splitting the Tory party but increasingly business opinion seems divided. Several business figures – including Lord Browne, the former BP boss – warned last week that the prime minister was endangering future investment in this country by offering a referendum several years down the road.
But in an article for the Observer published on guardian.co.uk, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, says Cameron's policy of "renegotiation and referendum" is the correct one. "Britain's businesspeople are not keen on walking out of the European exit door, but recognise that in a negotiation all options have to remain on the table," he says. "That means having the courage to take tough decisions and facing the consequences at the ballot box."
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