The Prime Minister declared the ‘best future for Britain’ was in a reformed European Union.
But European leaders effectively killed his pledge to make new arrivals from the EU wait four years before receiving in-work benefits.
Instead, officials are scrambling to agree a so-called emergency brake which would allow benefits to be withheld for a limited time – and only with the approval of Brussels – if our welfare state is overwhelmed.
Critics said it was inadequate and had reduced the renegotiation to a ‘shambolic charade’.
The worst scenario for the PM would be if ministers judge his reforms so feeble they resign and campaign to pull Britain out.
Yesterday Home Secretary Theresa May twice declined to rule out running the Leave campaign.
But the PM dropped his heaviest hint yet that the referendum will be in July – with him at the front of the Remain campaign.
He said: ‘I believe 2016 will be the year we achieve something really vital, fundamentally changing the UK’s relationship with the EU and finally addressing the concerns of the British people about our membership.’
Speaking in Brussels, he virtually killed off the idea he might campaign to leave the EU, saying: ‘It is a choice we all need to think about. But I believe if we can get these reforms right – and I believe that we can – I firmly believe that for our own economic security and increasingly for our national security the best future for Britain is in a reformed European Union.’
His comments came after a two-day meeting of the European Council in which fellow EU leaders savaged his migrant benefit proposals.
After a four-hour working dinner, ending at midnight yesterday, they said the PM had accepted his proposals were discriminatory and had opted not to push them.
Mr Cameron had insisted he would rule nothing out if he did not get his wishes, hinting he could campaign for leaving.
But Tory backbenchers said his comments yesterday suggested he had given up any pretense that this could be the case.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove said the EU ‘isn’t working’ but that ministers had a ‘duty’ to support Mr Cameron during EU talks, adding: ‘Then I and others can judge that deal once it’s been concluded.’
Justice Secretary Michael Gove said the EU ‘isn’t working’ but said ministers had a ‘duty’ to support the PM
Yesterday, Eurosceptics said all the PM had secured at the summit was a vague 52-word pledge that the EU would work towards ‘mutually satisfactory solutions’ at the Council’s meeting in February.
Mr Cameron made it clear he wants the deal concluded in February, but added it is the ‘substance’ that matters.
Steve Baker, co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain, said: ‘People looking at the Prime Minister’s demands would be entitled to ask, is that it? … even if he gets what he’s asking for … it will not make much difference to immigration … surely it is time to pull the plug, admit we are not going to get the fundamental reforms the Prime Minister said he wanted, and hold that referendum. At the moment it feels like a bit of a charade, and a shambolic one at that.’
Sir Bill Cash, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, dismissed the idea of the brake, adding: ‘These weasel words to get around the issue of in-work benefits is nothing to do with the real question: who governs Britain and how.’
Kate Hoey, of the Labour Leave campaign, said that if the UK remains in the EU ‘after all of this debate … it will be the end of the United Kingdom as a totally, independent democratic country’.
Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott said the PM’s negotiations ‘boiled down to a trivial set of demands, which will do nothing to address the inherent risk of remaining in the EU’.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was ‘deadly serious’ about preventing benefits being a ‘magnet for migration … so that you don’t come here simply to get in-work benefits or have an automatic right to social housing ahead of people who are already living and working here’.
Government insiders stressed no decision had been taken on the referendum date. July is favourite, but it could be held as late as October.