David Cameron won the support of one of the Conservative party's leading Eurosceptics on Sunday as it emerged that the prime minister will deliver his long-awaited and once-postponed referendum speech before the end of the week.
Liam Fox, the former defence secretary and one of the party's most vocal critics of Brussels, said he had been briefed on the contents of the speech and was "broadly satisfied" with what Cameron was intending to say. "If that is the speech that is finally delivered, a great many of us will think that it's a speech that we've been waiting a long time for any prime minister to deliver," Fox said.
Cameron originally floated the idea of using his speech to the Conservative party conference last year to make a big announcement about Europe. Then a separate speech was promised before Christmas but that got delayed. After eventually being scheduled for last Friday in Amsterdam, it was postponed at the last minute because of the Algerian crisis.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, said on Sunday that the speech would take place before the end of this week. The date and the time will be announced on Monday.
Given that Tuesday and Thursday have already apparently been ruled out and the publication of growth figures that could show the UK heading back towards recession are due to be published on Friday, Wednesday seems the most likely day.
Cameron is still keen to deliver the speech abroad, but it is not clear whether this will be feasible.
Some extracts have already been released from the speech, which will set out Cameron's determination to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and to put the result to the people in a referendum after the 2015 election. But it remains to be seen what he will say about the extent of the renegotiation he hopes to achieve or the mechanics of the proposed referendum.
In an interview on the BBC's Sunday Politics, Fox, who said that he was bound by a duty of confidentiality not to disclose the contents of the speech, said he personally wanted to see Britain revert to a "basic economic relationship" with the EU.
If Cameron failed to achieve a major repatriation of powers, Fox said he would vote to leave the EU in the referendum that would follow.
"If the choice for me was between going in the current direction, which, let's face it, is towards ever closer union and ultimately a greater and greater loss of British sovereignty, my personal preference would be to leave," he said. "I don't want to have ever closer union, I don't want to be European first and British second."
Broadcaster Michael Portillo, a leading Conservative Eurosceptic in the 1990s, told Sky News that he thought Cameron was making a mistake in offering a referendum when he personally was in favour of keeping Britain in the EU.
"To commit himself to an in-out referendum in the midterm of his next government seems to me to be extraordinarily dangerous," said Portillo. "People like to kick their government in the teeth."
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said Cameron should hold a referendum before the general election because it was "doubtful" that the Conservatives would win it.
Farage said that although there would be no national Ukip pact with Cameron's party in 2015, he could imagine local Ukip branches deciding not to run candidates against Conservatives who were particularly Eurosceptic.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
Have something to tell us about this article?