MPs have overturned two House of Lords amendments that aimed to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and hand parliament a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal.
Sources have told the Guardian that peers will now accept the supremacy of the Commons, allowing Theresa May’s Brexit bill to clear all hurdles on Monday night, preparing it for royal assent.
The decision means the prime minister will be able to trigger article 50 from Tuesday, but sources have quashed speculation of quick action and instead suggested she will wait until the final week of March.
MPs voted down the amendment on EU nationals’ rights by 335 to 287, a majority of 48. The second amendment on whether to hold a meaningful final vote on any deal after the conclusion of Brexit talks was voted down by 331 to 286, a majority of 45.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, told colleagues that MPs and peers had made their arguments with “passion, sincerity and conviction” but said he was disappointed by the amendments.
Using emollient language that is likely to have been enough to persuade peers not to cause any more trouble for the government, he said he wanted this legislation to remain “straightforward”, simply allowing the government to embark on the formal Brexit process.
Davis said he was interested in the rights of millions ofcitizens, bringing together Europeans in the UK and Britons living on the continent, adding that he would take personal “moral responsibility” for their future guarantees.
He argued that European citizens made a vital contribution to society and that he wanted them to retain all their rights. “The government has been very clear of what it intends – it intends to guarantee the rights of both British and European citizens,” he said. But he added that he needed the same commitment from other countries but that they would not embark on talks before article 50 is triggered.
He said that was why it was so important to quickly pass this bill. “Every member state has reinforced the point – they want this at the top of the agenda, they want this to be dealt with first,” he said, promising a quick deal.
On the second vote, Davis said guaranteeing such a vote could hamper the government during its negotiations. He questioned the motives of those arguing for it, claiming that they wanted to reverse the referendum result.
He said: “As we embark on the forthcoming negotiations, our guiding approach is simple: we will not do anything that will undermine the national interest, including interests of British citizens living in the EU.”
“And we will not enter the negotiations with our hands tied,” he said, suggesting the EU would be incentivised to offer a bad deal to the UK if it knew that it could be rejected by parliament.
A number of Conservative colleagues argued that the government was right to aim to guarantee reciprocity for British citizens abroad. However, Davis was opposed by Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP – with some passionate speeches from critics – and faced a small rebellion on his own backbenches over the meaningful vote on the eventual Brexit deal.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, asked “what is the problem” with regards to EU citizens, pointing out that the amendment gave the government three months after article 50 is triggered to find a solution.
“Are we prepared to use one set of people, those that are here, as a bargaining chip to get the right settlement for people,” he said. “The whole argument about reciprocal rights is about bargaining.”
He also rejected Davis’s suggestion that what he said at the dispatch box in parliament was binding, saying: “That is not a legal commitment and secretaries of state can change and governments can change – that is why we need a commitment.”
On EU citizens, Starmer – who accused the government of having an “obsession with a clean bill” – said: “They are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours. They make a contribution to our society, they are also our society. What have we come to if we can’t deal with those levels of anxiety.”
Nick Clegg, the former Lib Dem leader, whose wife is Spanish and mother is Dutch, said: “For me the political is personal. My mother has lived here for more than 50 years, raised four children, paid her taxes; my wife raised children, paid taxes, works as a lawyer. It beggars believe that people like them and millions like them have had a question mark placed over their status, their peace of mind, their wellbeing in our great country because of the action or the shameless inaction of this government. We picked the fight – not the EU.
“There is no earthly way that this government can separate the 3 million EU citizens already here from the millions who may come after a cut-off date … without creating a mountainous volume of red tape. Wasn’t that the reason to leave? This government is going to create a tsunami wave of red tape.”
The founder of The3million, the grassroots organisation lobbying for the rights of EU citizens, said he felt “utter desperation” that they are now destined to become bargaining chips.
Nicolas Hatton said: “The hearts of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK will have sunken today when they heard that MPs had voted down the amendment to article 50 giving them guarantees.
“This was the last chance and I struggle to find words to express my utter desperation that EU citizens will now be used by the government as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiation.”