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Theresa May has indicated that free movement of EU citizens to Britain could continue for a period after Brexit, as she eyes an “implementation phase” after 2019 while new border systems and a trade deal are put in place.

Mrs May, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, has subtly adjusted her language in recent days to bring her more closely into line with the EU negotiating position, which states that no trade deal can be concluded until after Britain leaves.

She also appeared to concede that Britain might have to comply with European Council president Donald Tusk’s demand that the EU’s “core principles”, including over immigration, would have to apply during any transition period.

Although Mrs May insisted that the UK would have control over its borders in any transition, the phrasing suggested that immigration from the EU could continue until after the next British election in 2020.

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.

“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.”

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