An attempt by David Cameron to placate Conservative MPs by taking a tougher line on migration from European Union countries has provoked a row with his Liberal Democrat Coalition partners.
The Prime Minister faces a test of his authority in the Commons on Thursday, when scores of Tory backbenchers are threatening to vote against the Government during debate on its Immigration Bill. The rebels want to reverse the decision to allow Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain and to make it harder for foreign suspected criminals to avoid deportation by claiming a right to family life.
Downing Street insists that it cannot reimpose the ban on Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK to work - lifted on January 1 - because such a move would be illegal. But up to 50 Tory MPs are ready to support Nigel Mills, the MP for Amber Valley, who is trying to amend the Bill.
Number 10 is sympathetic to compromise amendments that would put a duty on the Home Secretary to measure the scale of migration from EU nations and to act if this became “excessive.” This comes close to a plan by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to impose a cap on EU migration, which has not been adopted by the Government because it would breach the right to free movement -- a central tenet of EU law.
But the proposed compromise has infuriated Nick Clegg, who is prepared to see tougher curbs on EU migrants claiming benefits in Britain but does not want to break the rules of the 28-nation EU club.
The Liberal Democrats regard the compromise as vague, unworkable and are warning that other EU nations could retaliate against British citizens living abroad. A senior Lib Dem source said: “The amendments are badly drafted and they send out a very damaging signal to our European neighbours that we do not intend to play by the rules. We do not know what the word ‘excessive’ means, but it seems to lead to quotas. Spain does not have quotas for the number of British people who are living over there.”
The Lib Dems suspect the amendments have been drafted with the help of government officials. Conservative sources denied that.
Talks between the two Coalition parties continued last night in an attempt to prevent a public display of disunity in the Commons. If the dispute is not resolved, Tory and Lib Dem ministers and MPs could vote against each other in some of today’s votes.
Mr Cameron is also under pressure to take a tougher line on deportation. Dominic Raab, a Tory backbencher, has won the backing of more than 100 MPs, including some senior Labour MPs, for his call to narrow the grounds for appeal against deportation by foreigners given a jail sentence of over a year, unless they were at risk of torture or murder in their own country.
In effect, the move would overrule the Article 8 protection for family life contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, which some foreign nationals have used to avoid deportation. But the Labour Opposition is expected to vote with the Government, reducing the prospect of it being defeated.
In another attempt to appease Conservative backbenchers, Mrs May tabled a last minute amendment to permit the removal of a UK passport from any suspect whose conduct is "seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK".
The Home Secretary already has the power to take away British citizenship from those with dual nationality. The proposed change would allow her to make subjects stateless if the person has been naturalised as a British citizen. But it is likely to anger human rights campaigners, who have previously likened such tactics to those used in countries such as Zimbabwe, where statelessness has been used to clamp down on political dissent.
It is unclear how many of the amendments to the Immigration Bill will be called in the time available for debate today. Rebel Tories suspect the Government has tabled a raft of technical amendments to waste time, a charge denied by ministers.
There is frustration in Downing Street that the Tory rebels, who include some of Mr Cameron’s fiercest critics, are distracting attention from good economic news as the recovery takes hold. The backbenchers insist they are merely voicing public concern about immigration.
Yesterday the Prime Minister appealed to MPs to pass the Bill “with all speed.” He told the Commons: “It is an important piece of law we are going to be discussing on Thursday, because we don't just need to have control at our borders, we need to make sure that people cannot come to Britain and abuse our health service and get rights to council or other housing or bank accounts or driving licences if they have no right to be here.”
Mr Cameron added: “We will correct in the Immigration Bill the fact that it is so difficult to deport people who don't have a right to be here and should be facing trial overseas or should be deported overseas but make spurious arguments about the right to a family life. It is right that we are changing that. There is nothing anti-European about it. It's a very sensible step that this Government is taking.”