Theresa May has signalled that free movement of EU citizens could continue during a transitional phase after the UK leaves the European Union in spring 2019.
Speaking during a trip to the Middle East, the prime minister did not rule out the possibility, and instead admitted that there would need to be an “implementation period” to help businesses to adjust.
The European council president, Donald Tusk, has made clear that while the EU27 will be willing to seek transitional arrangements, the “core principles”, including over immigration, must be maintained during that period.
His guidelines suggest that if the UK wishes to stay in the single market while a free trade deal is negotiated and then implemented beyond the two-year formal exit process then free movement will have to remain.
A senior government figure with knowledge of the negotiating process told the Guardian that the wording echoed the fact that “no one serious in Brussels or in the other key capitals” believed a trade deal would be concluded by 2018.
Asked directly to “rule out free movement in any transitional period once we leave the EU”, May said: “You’ve used the phrase transitional phase; I have used the phrase implementation period,” she said, speaking to reporters on the plane during her two-day tour of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“If you think about it, once we’ve got the deal, once we’ve agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth, depending on the nature of the deal, a period of time during which that deal will be implemented.”
What is crucial for the British public … is that they want to ensure we have control of our bordersTheresa May
Her answer left the door open to the possibility that the UK government could allow further unfettered migration from the EU while a new system is put in place.
But the prime minister also said she had a mandate to put control of immigration back in the hands of the UK government.
“What is crucial for the British public, what was part of the vote that they took last year, was that they want to ensure that we have control of our borders and control of our immigration and that’s exactly what we will do when we come out of the European Union,” she said.
The comments, which could provoke worry among Eurosceptics, chime with comments by the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, on Sunday when he refused to speculate on a date when free movement could officially end.
“There won’t suddenly be a huge difference between the day after we leave and the day before,” he told the BBC. “We can’t give a timetable on negotiations that haven’t even started yet. Our object is to regain control over migration – to make sure we can manage the number of people who are coming here and the numbers of people who are going to Europe.”
Richard Tice, co-chair of Brexit pressure group Leave Means Leave, said he had “serious concerns” about the comments. “We urge the prime minister to announce a cut-off point immediately to avert an impending national disaster,” he said.
But Steve Baker – an influential backbencher who campaigned to leave the EU and now chairs the European research group representing more than 130 Conservative MPs, refused to be critical. “These hypothetical scenarios are speculative. We can’t have MPs tying the prime minister’s hands by drawing new red lines with each twist and turn. We are united behind what the PM has said in her speeches and published in her white paper and letter,” he said.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said May was “laying groundwork for what sensible people have been saying to her government all along”, and said the demand for skilled and unskilled workers would not cease after April 2019.
“Unfortunately, May’s hardline, anti-immigrant rhetoric to date means that many leave voters will now feel let down by this new, sensible approach,” he said.
“By immediately jumping on the hard-right, Brexiteer bandwagon last June, May has set herself up to either cripple the country or betray public trust. That short-sightedness is now unravelling, but she must now continue to be honest with the British public about the scale of this task, instead of hiding behind nonsense rhetoric.”