The British government wants to implement an immigration regime under which controls would be applied to both skilled and unskilled European workers, the Guardian understands.
Ministers have told colleagues they want a tough system that is profoundly different to the one that currently exists, with restrictions at all levels.
But sources have suggested that they and officials are now looking at a regime in which European citizens would be treated preferentially to migrants coming to the UK from the rest of the world.
Theresa May wants free movement to be a red line in Brexit negotiations and has been reported to support the idea of EU citizens being able to travel freely for holidays, to study or to marry, but with a robust visa scheme for those wanting to work.
The Guardian understands that there have also been discussions about a second, more liberal immigration system under which free movement would stay but with an “emergency brake” if immigration levels became unacceptably high.
Brexit-supporting MPs said it was right to put in place restrictions, even for skilled workers. Peter Lilley, a Tory MP on parliament’s Brexit committee, argued that access to cheap skilled labour had allowed British employers to “put training on the backburner”