LONDON (Reuters) - When British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers an eagerly awaited speech in Amsterdam on Friday that could determine Britain’s future in Europe, the message will be his own, but the text a collective effort.
The speech, in which he is expected to rattle off a list of powers he wants to seize back from the European Union and promise a public vote on any new arrangements, has been sweated over by a little-known coterie of advisers and speech writers.
The pressure to get it right is high. Some politicians have said the speech could end up reshaping Britain’s role in the world, alienating allies, and deciding his own political fate and that of his ruling Conservative party.
A government source said “four or five people” who shared “a range of views” about the EU have been actively working on the text up until the last minute. Cameron had widely consulted other interest groups for their views, the source said.
A former senior aide, who said the speech would have gone through at least a dozen rewrites, said most of those involved in the drafting were more Eurosceptic than Europhile.
“Most of them are pretty Eurosceptic but what we call frustrated realists who have been thwarted by Europe when trying to get things done in government,” the former aide told Reuters.
The small number of people working on the speech and the relative secrecy that has accompanied their work reflects Cameron’s style of government.
People who have worked with him say he prefers a limited number of advisers and leans heavily on one cabinet colleague for advice in particular - George Osborne, who is finance minister and godfather to his children.
Osborne, 41, is, like Cameron, a graduate of Oxford University with aristocratic roots. Conservative party staffers nickname him “the submarine” because he rarely makes high-profile public appearances.
Charged with overseeing cuts in public spending to try to cut Britain’s deficit, he has warned that the EU needs to reform for Britain to remain a member, striking a more Eurosceptic tone than cabinet colleagues.
Others who would have helped shape the speech’s contents include the foreign secretary, Cameron’s chief political speech writer, his chief-of-staff, his director of strategy, and the top unelected civil servant, the same former aide said.
Most of these people have one thing in common: they don’t welcome publicity or like to talk about how they do their job.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, 51, has traditionally been regarded as an arch Eurosceptic. Another graduate of Oxford University, he wrote the foreword to a strongly worded policy manifesto released on Wednesday that listed various areas where Eurosceptics want powers brought back to London.
However, some Eurosceptic MPs have questioned the strength of his skepticism, muttering that they believe he has been trying to ensure Cameron waters down the big speech.
“Hague is good at saying what not to do,” the same former Conservative aide said.
‘A DANGEROUS ISSUE’
Clare Foges, Cameron’s chief political speech writer, would also have played a major, if technical role. In her early 30s, she would have laid out a first draft and been responsible for much of the inevitable redrafting.
She won admiration from peers for writing Cameron’s speech to his own party conference last year, an address that even some party political critics judged successful. Her views on the EU are not public.
One individual whose influence would have been only second to Osborne‘s, according to two of the people who spoke to Reuters, is Edward Llewellyn, Cameron’s chief-of-staff. Aged 48 and also a graduate of Oxford University, some who know him say he may be more of a moderating influence on EU issues.
Before working for Cameron, he worked in Brussels for then European Commissioner Chris Patten, a prominent Europhile, and has also worked for Liberal Democrat politician Paddy Ashdown, who is also strongly pro-European.
“He’s a true European, even if that doesn’t go down very well with most Conservative party members,” said one EU diplomat who knows him from his time in Brussels.
Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s director of strategy, is also likely to have been involved. He has known Cameron for the best part of two decades and is an expert in polling.
He is likely to have been involved in road-testing some of the elements of the speech, putting them to small focus groups and possibly commissioning surveys to test public opinion.
Local media have reported him as thinking in the past that the Conservatives should “not bang on about Europe”.
The last person who is certain to have fed into the speech is Jeremy Heywood, 51, the cabinet secretary and Britain’s most senior public servant.
Though unelected and largely invisible to the public, Heywood, another Oxford graduate, is reported to wield huge behind-the-scenes power and to not sympathize with Eurosceptic views on the EU.
In October, the Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted a government minister as saying of Heywood: “Europe is an important area where he can chill discussions. He thinks it is his job to help prevent Eurosceptic ministers getting overexcited and messing things up.”
The Daily Mail was blunter, quoting a government “insider” saying the same month: “You can’t talk about Europe in No . 10 without Jeremy jumping down your throat.”
One who won’t have contributed is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the coalition government’s junior party, who has described Cameron’s pledge to win back powers as a “false promise wrapped in a Union Jack”.
Europe is a critical faultline within the coalition.
Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable released advance extracts of a speech in which he warned that EU leaders would resist Cameron’s fight to win back powers from Brussels.
“There are many in Europe, notably in France, who would be happy to see the back of the UK ... and even the UK’s allies on market reform, notably Germany, have limited political capital to spend getting a more favorable arrangement for the UK,” Cable will say.
“That seems to me a dangerous gamble to make,” he adds.
Europe policy has often been dangerous for British leaders. It unseated former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and crippled the government of her successor John Major.
Cameron, who aims to stand at the next general election in 2015, is fighting a low-intensity battle for his own political future, trying to hold together a party still split over Europe.
The challenge for his speech will be to mollify a group of about 100 lawmakers - about a third of his parliamentary party - who want him to claw back a swathe of powers from the EU and consider leaving the 27-nation Union if he fails to do so.
Another small group of Conservative MPs wants Britain to leave the EU altogether, while another faction - with a fainter voice so far - wants to keep the status quo and warn that diluting Britain’s relationship with the Union risks pushing the country to the political and economic sidelines.
Other EU member states and the United States, a close ally, have also made clear their unease about Cameron’s EU maneuvering, as have several business leaders.
Expectations are also high that Washington and Brussels will announce plans to go ahead with negotiations for a trade deal later this month encompassing half the world’s economic output, which would increase the clout of EU membership.
“At the end of the day, the person who makes all the decisions is David Cameron,” said Peter Bone, a prominent Eurosceptic MP. “He’s not going to delegate too much.”
Bone, who has been pushing Cameron to try to pass legislation for a referendum on the EU before 2015, said the premier’s fortunes could ride on what he says in Amsterdam.
“The speech’s importance can’t be overstated,” he told Reuters. “It could pull down his premiership.”
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels; Editing by Will Waterman