Theresa May has refused to rule out the deportation of EU nationals living in Britain after the country leaves the European Union, amid fears that guaranteeing their rights at this stage could lead to a “huge influx” of migrants during the Brexit negotiation phase.
It comes as the Home Secretary, who has emerged as the clear frontrunner in the race to succeed David Cameron as Conservative leader, said today that although she wanted to “guarantee the position” of EU citizens currently living in the UK she admitted their future could be up for negotiation.
A source close to Ms May told The Independent: “She [Ms May] was saying it’s unwise to promise right now that all EU nationals living in Britain should be able to stay indefinitely. The reason for that is if we did that the same rights would have to apply to any EU national who comes to Britain before we leave the EU.
“If we made that promise you could just see a huge influx…of EU nationals who would all want to come here while they have that chance.”
The source also made clear that the issue was a “negotiating point”. They added: “It would just be a bad negotiating position because we shouldn’t guarantee the rights of EU nationals without having any guarantees the other way about British nationals living in EU member states."
Ms May said during her leadership campaign launch last week in London that there was no mandate to accept the free movement of people in its current state. She could, therefore, use EU nationals living in Britain as a “negotiating point” if she attempts to maintain access to the single market with restrictions.
Appearing on ITV’s Peston on Sunday Ms May, the longest serving Home Secretary in 100 years, who is hedging her bets as the “unity” candidate in the Tory leadership contest, said: “What's important is there will be a negotiation here as to how we deal with that issue of people who are already here and who have established life here and Brits who have established a life in other countries within the European Union.
“The position at the moment is as it has been, there's no change at the moment, but of course we have to factor that into negotiations.
“As part of the negotiation we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU.”
Responding to her comments Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, demanded that EU nationals residing in the UK are given complete assurances that they will have the right to stay in the UK indefinitely. The party, which has committed to standing in the next election on the platform of securing Britain’s place in the EU, added that the future status of these people is not clear beyond any renegotiation period, leading to uncertainty.
Mr Farron told The Independent: “It is utterly outrageous that Theresa May won't give Europeans living, working and paying taxes in the UK certainty that they will have the right to stay here. The Liberal Democrats would.
“We call on the Home Secretary to offer a cast iron guarantee that the futures of all those Europeans residing here can be in the UK.”
Candidates vying to replace Mr Cameron have been urged to guarantee that the three million EU nationals already living here are not deported if and when Britain quits the bloc.
Campaigners from both sides – including Brexit backers Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP, Labour's Gisela Stuart and Ukip's Douglas Carswell as well as Remain supporters Yvette Cooper, a Labour former frontbencher, and TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady – have also called for contenders to pledge to fight for a similar deal for UK citizens living in the other 27 EU countries.
Ms May said she would establish a Department for Brexit and a team of negotiators before triggering Article 50 – the formal legal process of severing ties with the EU.
The Home Secretary also used the interview to dismiss calls for her ‘coronation’ as Tory leader due to her clear lead in the polls against her rivals in the bid for 10 Downing Street. Ms May said she was not taking “anything for granted”, adding there is a need for the arguments to be heard by Tory members.
Recent polling has revealed that most Conservatives back the Home Secretary to succeed Mr Cameron. Among party members, who will vote to decide the winner of the contest, some 46 per cent say she would make the best Prime Minister.
Ms May was also backed by 60 per cent of Tory voters, with Michael Gove second on 10 points and Mrs Leadsom on six, according to the ICM poll for The Sun on Sunday.
Bitter recriminations over rival Mr Gove's decision to derail Boris Johnson’s leadership bid appear to have dented his prospects of taking on Ms May in the final vote. In an attempt to destabilise Ms May’s campaign the Justice Secretary said she lacks the moral authority to lead the country because she campaigned against Brexit.
"If you are going to have a leadership election and the Prime Minister has chosen to stand down, then the logic is that you need to have someone who backed Brexit and believed in it and argued for it as you leader in these negotiations," he told The Sunday Times.
Mr Gove faces being pushed into third place by fellow Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom, whose support is growing. The former City worker has likened herself to Margaret Thatcher and praised the late Prime Minister’s ability to mix toughness with “personal warmth”.
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