In a dramatic development, Mr Cameron postponed his visit to the Netherlands to make the long-awaited speech and hold talks with Dutch opposite number Mark Rutte.

The speech, which has been several months in the planning, has brought debate at Westminster over the UK’s future membership of the EU to fever pitch.

Mr Cameron had been due to make his speech tomorrow morning, and was expected to fly to the Netherlands this evening.

After it became clear that several Britons had been caught up in the hostage incident, arrangements were made for him to chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee by video-link from The Hague if necessary.

But as news came through of violent clashes and multiple deaths at the desert gas plant, the decision was taken to postpone the speech to a date and venue yet to be confirmed.

It had previously been reported that the speech – expected to include a promise of a renegotiation of the terms of UK membership of the EU, subject to the “fresh consent” of the British people – would take place in the Netherlands on January 22.

But it is understood that it was brought forward to tomorrow so as not to clash with the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty between France and Germany.

It was first revealed that Mr Cameron was planning a major speech on Europe as long ago as September, and he joked that the long delays were due to his “tantric” approach.

Mr Cameron sought to prepare the ground for his speech by calling his opposite numbers in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands earlier in the week.

And today he discussed what he was planning to say on European policy in telephone calls with US president Barack Obama and French president Francois Hollande.

The Obama call followed last week’s unusually direct intervention in the debate by the US, when assistant secretary for European affairs Philip Gordon made clear the White House wanted “a strong British voice” in the EU and said referendums risked turning countries “inward”.

The US intervention formed part of a barrage of advice on Europe directed at Mr Cameron from all quarters since the New Year.

Tory factions, coalition ministers and business leaders all heaped on pressure today in advance of what was billed by former British ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, as the most important speech on Europe by a British PM since 1945.

Labour leader Ed Miliband warned that Mr Cameron was about to take Britain “to the edge of an economic cliff” by creating uncertainty for business, while Vince Cable warned him not to take a “dangerous gamble” with the national interest.

Mr Cable warned there was a risk that Mr Cameron could end up taking Britain out of the EU “by accident”.

“Once you talk about renegotiation you are opening up the possibility that if you don’t get what you want, you leave – by accident or design,” the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.

But Mr Cameron won support for his stance from London mayor Boris Johnson, who said in a speech: “We… want to complete the single market – which everyone supports – and we want to get rid of some of the barnacles that have become attached to the hull.

“I believe that this is a deal the Prime Minister could and will do, and I bet that is roughly what he will announce… that he will put a renegotiated membership to the British people, and then campaign to stay in the single market.

“I bet the people would vote for that option, because the common sense position – the position supported by most people I meet – is that Britain should be part of the Common Market, able to set the rules in the internal market council – but pruning our relationship of excrescences and above all looking outwards to the rest of the world.”

Eurosceptics in the City have called on Mr Cameron to offer Britain “a clear choice” over its membership of the European Union. In a move to counter pro-Europe business leaders’ claims that firms want Britain to remain in the EU, figures including banker and Conservative peer Lord Flight, venture capitalist Jon Moulton and former Barclays director Lord Vinson called for an in/out referendum in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.

Mr Cameron also faced a deluge of demands from formal and informal groupings of backbenchers from across his party, including a number of former Cabinet ministers.

The Prime Minister has rejected calls for an immediate in/out popular vote but is expected to announce plans for a referendum on a new settlement with Brussels after the 2015 general election.

Former defence secretary Liam Fox urged the Prime Minister to show “courage and conviction” and called for British voters to eventually be given a “clear in/out choice”.

Writing on the ConservativeHome website, Dr Fox said: “Ending the concept of ‘ever closer union’ by negotiating a new agreement – on the basis that it will settle the European question in Britain for a generation with a clear in/out referendum choice for the British people based on renegotiation – is what many of us hope we will hear from the Prime Minister.”

One group of 25 Conservative MPs – including ex-Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman, former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former vice chairman of the Conservative Party Margot James – urged him to use his speech to emphasise that Britain is better off in the EU.

In a letter, they warned that an “over-emphasis” on renegotiation and the promise of a referendum could undermine the single market, which it pointed out was created by Margaret Thatcher and enlarged by John Major.

“We fear that a renegotiation which seems to favour the UK alone would force other capitals to ask why they cannot simply dispense with those parts of the single market that don’t suit them, potentially endangering Margaret Thatcher’s defining European legacy,” the letter said.

Eurosceptic MPs Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin said this morning that concerns about the single market could not be allowed to override all other considerations regarding Britain’s relationship with Brussels.

The pair warned that the benefits of the single market were “vastly overstated”, claiming that the UK economy would create more jobs if it did not face the “costs and burdens” of the EU

PA

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