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2 March 2017

Will Tory MPs defeat the government over EU nationals?

The number of dissidents required from the Conservatives and the DUP is a daunting 16. But it could still happen.

By Stephen Bush

 The government has been defeated in the Lords, this time over the rights of EU citizens. The Lords have required a timetable Downing Street has no intention of giving way so the amendment will head back to the Commons.

What happens next is in the hands of Conservative MPs. Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, has already ruled out an extended back and forth so the government’s Brexit timetable is not under threat. As I’ve written before, the fact that the DUP will be whipped to vote with the government means that the number of dissidents from both parties is up from a doable eight to a daunting 16, but it could still happen.

The government’s line is that if the United Kingdom guarantees the rights of EU citizens living here, that will jeopardise their hopes of protecting British citizens living in the EU27. There are a couple of problems with that line: the first is that, as anyone from any of the 168 nations that are not in the EU could tell you, there’s no EU-wide migration policy for people from outside it.

The countries which make up the bulk of the EU citizens with rights to protect here in the UK are from the eastern bloc. The countries where British citizens live are Spain, France and Ireland. In Ireland, we have extended longer-standing guarantees about their rights in any case, and have already committed to maintaining those rights post-Brexit. The truth is the “leverage” we are exerting in letting European citizens twist in the wind isn’t worth much, and is significantly less valuable than the goodwill that a unilateral guarantee on our part would secure. 

That’s before you get into the economic question about showing the United Kingdom is a welcoming country that is “open for business”, and the moral question of what kind of message we’re sending about the country we are these days.

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What many ministers privately expect is that when Article 50 is triggered, and the pressure to reassure the Brexit ultras that we really are leaving is off, Theresa May will set out a more consensual position, including a guarantee for EU citizens, as she realises that we need to mend fences with the EU27. That private assurance may lower the pressure on the government in the Commons. It doesn’t do much to ease the nerves of the 3m EU citizens living in the United Kingdom.