David Cameron averted an embarrassing revolt on Thursday by more than 50 Conservative MPs by delaying a vote on the removal next month of border controls on Romanians and Bulgarians.
Existing “transitional controls” will be lifted on 1 January, provoking claims that the move will lead to an influx of tens of thousands of new arrivals.
But Tory rebels are urging the Prime Minister to defy Brussels by retaining restrictions on workers from the two new European Union member states for another five years.
More than 50 had been attempting to force a vote on the issue before Christmas through an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which restricts the rights of foreign nationals to claim benefits.
To the dismay of Eurosceptic MPs, Andrew Lansley, the Commons Leader, announced there would be no further debate on the Bill until the New Year – after the current controls have been scrapped.
Mark Reckless, the MP for Rochester and Strood, objected to the hold-up, protesting it would surely make sense for MPs to vote on “whether to extend immigration restrictions for Bulgaria and Romania in advance of them being lifted on January 1”.
The UK Independence Party accused ministers of “desperately trying to bury the news they are blocking any debate on the removal of restrictions” on the day of Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement.
Last week Ms May announced a package of new restrictions on incoming EU migrants in a bid to reassure MPs about the potential impact of the arrival of Romanians and Bulgarians, but it was not enough to prevent the head of steam behind the rebel amendment.
The row blew up as Ms May urged European ministers to back the Prime Minister’s call for new rules on the movement of people within the EU. Speaking in Brussels, she said free access to labour markets should not be allowed to lead to “mass migration”.
Mr Cameron has called for future EU member states to be denied full rights for its nationals to work across the EU if their economies are not strong enough. He is also suggesting member states be allowed to impose caps on levels of European immigration.
The ideas are likely to be central to Mr Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Liberal Democrat sources made clear Ms May was not acting on behalf of the Coalition but in a Tory Party role.