As many as 30 Tory MPs could rebel against Theresa May and force the government to guarantee European citizens the right to remain in the United Kingdom, a peer has claimed.
Ministers have signalled they will seek to overturn a change to the Brexit Bill by the House of Lords after peers inflicted the first parliamentary defeat on the legislation.
Peers voted last night by 358 to 256 in favour of an opposition amendment guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit.
A second Commons vote will be needed to reverse the decision of the Lords.
But crossbench peer Baroness Meacher said this morning the prime minister would not find it as easy as she thought to win the vote.
“We understand that there are 30 Tories who are saying that they will vote to support this amendment. Obviously the Tory whips in the Commons are going to work extremely hard with all sorts of bribes to get these people to vote with the Government,” Baroness Meacher told BbC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I believe it can be won in the Commons on the basis of morality and principal. Tories are principled people in general.”
Despite the setback in the Lords, ministers are confident they remain on course to meet May’s deadline for invoking Article 50 - marking the start of the formal process of EU withdrawal - of the end of March.
A spokesman for the Brexit Department said: “The Bill has a straightforward purpose - to enact the referendum result and allow the Government to get on with the negotiations.”
With seven rebel Conservative peers voting for the amendment along with 78 independent crossbenchers, opposition parties urged ministers to take the opportunity to rethink their position on EU nationals.
Labour shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said EU nationals should not be used by ministers as “bargaining chips” in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
“There is a growing consensus that this must be resolved before Article 50 is triggered, and the Prime Minister is now increasingly isolated,” he said.
However there was anger among some pro-Brexit MPs at the vote after the elected House of Commons passed the Bill - which allows minister to trigger Article 50 - without amendments.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who co-chaired the official Vote Leave campaign, said: “The British people voted in their millions to leave the EU, and their elected MPs passed the Article 50 Bill without amendment.
“The House of Lords should do the same and not seek to frustrate the Brexit process.”
But the impassioned and at times angry three-hour debate in the Lords exposed divisions within Conservative ranks over Mrs May’s Brexit strategy.
Former cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, now Viscount Hailsham, urged peers to take the “high moral ground” and offer reassurance to the millions of EU citizens who had made their home in the UK.
However another Conservative cabinet veteran Lord Tebbit sparked jeers when he said the debate seemed to focus on “nothing but the rights of foreigners”.