The House of Lords has voted to give EU citizens living in the UK guaranteed rights to stay under Brexit - representing the first Government defeat on its legislation to leave the European Union.
With the future of three million EU nationals still uncertain, a cross-party coalition of peers voted by 358 to 256 to defeat the Government by backing a Labour amendment to the Brexit Bill going through the House of Lords.
The amendment grants unilateral rights to both citizens of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) once the UK has quit the 27-nation bloc in 2019.
It was the first Brexit Bill defeat for Theresa May despite warnings from the Government not to delay triggering Article 50, which begins formal talks of up to two years to quit the EU. May even eyeballed peers on the first day of debating.
The Government could still kill the amendment when the Bill returns to the House of Commons as part of parliamentary ‘ping-pong’, with Government sources already indicating it will seek to overturn the defeat.
Lord Bridges of Headley, a Brexit minister, had urged Labour to withdraw the amendment ahead of the vote, arguing the Government wants “fairness”.
“If the government gives a unilateral guarantee to EU nationals living here, what will happen to Britons on the continent,” he argued.
He added the government was confident it would be able to reach a “quick and timely” agreement with other EU countries on the reciprocal rights of nationals once Brexit talks begin.
But Labour peer Lady Hayter, summing up for Labour, feared EU nationals were being used as “bargaining chips”, a refused to change the position.
Ahead of the vote, a sometime fractious debate saw former Tory minister Lord Tebbit draw jeers after criticising peers for being more concerned about looking after “foreigners” than British people.
The ex-MP - who famously coined the ‘cricket test’ when questioning the lack of loyalty to the England cricket team among immigrants and their children - said: “Somehow or the other we seem to be thinking of nothing but the rights of foreigners.”
After jeers, he added: “My Lords, people of nationalities of other countries within the union are foreigners.”