Ministers caved to pressure last night and agreed to seek a treaty with the EU that would safeguard citizens’ rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The decision means that, if Brussels agrees, more than three million EU citizens in the UK and more than one million UK citizens in the EU will continue to enjoy the rights they currently have, regardless of whether the UK leaves with a deal.
The move followed a morning of chaos in Westminster in which an aide to Scottish Secretary David Mundell was forced to “resign” after he tabled the proposal in the form of an amendment to a government motion on Brexit that was due to be debated.
A Downing Street spokesman said that Tory MP Alberto Costa had broken with a longstanding convention that those on the government payroll do not table amendments to government bills and had quit as a result.
But just hours later Cabinet minister David Lidington, who is effectively Theresa May’s deputy, told the commons that the government would in fact be backing Mr Costa’s proposal.
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He said: “In view of the fact our political objectives are the same, the government will accept the amendment today and take it up with the commission.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said Mr Costa, who is the son of Italian immigrants, was being “punished” for attempting to protect the rights of citizens.
He told the Press and Journal: “I’m pleased that Alberto has put down his motion. In a sense he’s seeking to protect the interests of EU citizens in Scotland and he’s being punished for doing so. Utterly shameful.”
Gordon Tory MP Colin Clark, who is himself an aide, said “order would break down” if those on the payroll had freedom to table amendments, but added: “I hope it is not long before he is back in government.”
The amendment, which called on the government to seek “at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment” to secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British nationals settled in the EU, was passed by MPs without a formal vote.
Mr Costa, speaking in the chamber, welcomed the fact the government had accepted his proposal but said the rights of citizens “should never have been used as a bargaining chip”.
Mr Mundell paid tribute to Mr Costa, saying: “I fully understand his passion for the issue he is championing today, and which has done since Brexit.
“I am very grateful for his hard work, support and good humour in his time at the Scotland Office.”
Aside from passing Mr Costa’s amendment, MPs also considered amendments by Labour, the SNP and backbench MP Yvette Cooper.
Labour’s amendment, which sought support for a new negotiating strategy, was defeated by 240 votes to 323 and the SNP’s amendment, which would require Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit, was defeated by 324 votes to 288.
Ms Cooper’s amendment, which basically pins the prime minister down to the commitments she made on Tuesday, passed by 502 votes to 20.