Theresa May admitted she was wrong to say EU nationals “jump the queue” to work in the UK, as she revealed the date when MPs will decide the fate of her Brexit deal.
The “meaningful vote” will take place on Tuesday 11 December, at the close of five days of debate – and just two days before the prime minister heads to Brussels for another EU summit.
The date was announced as the agreement faced another torrent of criticism from all sides in the Commons, pointing to a heavy defeat and an unprecedented political crisis.
Making a statement, Ms May again refused to set out a “plan B”, as her aides insisted she was focused entirely on changing enough minds to win the vote against all the odds.
But she did backtrack on her controversial comment – to the CBI conference last week – that EU migrants will “no longer” be able to “jump the queue”, ahead of migrants from the rest of the world.
The remark triggered a storm of criticism, being branded “offensive” and “disgraceful” by Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and the fuel for hate crime by a leading academic.
In the Commons, the SNP’s Philippa Whitford protested it was insulting to people like her doctor husband, a German national, who has been in the UK for 30 years making a contribution.
In reply, Ms May told MPs: “I should not have used that language in that speech.”
The comment was a clumsy reference to the government’s intention to introduce a new immigration system after 2020, when free movement is due to end, treating EU and non-EU migrants equally.
The date of the meaningful vote was set out in a letter to Conservative MPs from Julian Smith, the chief whip, which also highlighted a “number of three-line whips” during the following week.
If, as seems certain, the deal is rejected, Labour has said it will push for a general election by tabling a vote of no confidence in the government soon afterwards. Read more
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