How does this ‘meaningful vote’ debate actually work?

by Nick Kent | 06.12.2018

The House of Commons is now debating the government’s Brexit deal. Next Tuesday it will vote on whether or not to approve it.  If it is rejected, MPs won’t immediately choose another option, such as no deal or a people’s vote – instead the government has 21 days to make a statement to Parliament as to what it proposes to do next.

What’s happening in the Commons now?

On Tuesday the prime minister opened five days of debate (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week, plus Monday and Tuesday next week) for discussing the government’s deal with the EU.  

At the end of that debate, around 7pm next Tuesday December 11, MPs will vote on a government motion asking them to approve the deal.

First, the business motion

In order to set up this debate, the House of Commons passed a business motion on Tuesday setting out how the debate would be organised. This was to allow the debate to run for five days, to deal with the question of amendments to the government’s motion, and to protect the debate from being interrupted by other non-urgent parliamentary business.


The question of whether or not the government motion approving the deal could be amended was discussed by the Commons’ procedure committee in a recent report. The procedure adopted by the House means that any MP can table an amendment to the government’s motion. At the end of the debate next Tuesday the Speaker can choose up to six of these amendments to be voted on.  

This debate is unusual in that it is seeking the approval of the House for an international treaty before any specific legislation has been brought forward to enable the UK to ratify that treaty. This has only happened on four previous occasions.  

As this is a treaty, any changes called for by MPs – for example, demanding that the government seek changes to the Northern Ireland backstop provisions – might make it impossible for the UK to ratify. This is because any changes made to the treaty have to be agreed by both parties, and the EU could decline to make any such changes.

Which amendments will the Speaker call?

According to parliament’s procedural manual, known as Erskine May, the Speaker must choose amendments that bring out “the salient points of criticism” of the main motion. By convention the speaker does not give reasons for choosing particular amendments. But it is likely that the speaker’s choice will be informed by the effect of the amendment on the government’s motion and by how much support an amendment has in the House.

What happens if the deal is voted down?

This debate is taking place because of a provision made in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 requiring parliamentary approval of any agreement reached with the EU. That Act also specifies that where there is no agreement with the EU, the government has 21 days to make a statement to parliament as to what it proposes to do.

Dominic Grieve’s amendment

The Commons made an important change to the business motion on Tuesday. MPs passed Dominic Grieve’s amendment, which means that any further government motion brought forward for debate under this procedure must be amendable by Parliament. For example, if the government was defeated then brought forward a motion proposing Theresa May’s deal again, MPs could table amendments to it – providing for a People’s Vote, or a no-deal Brexit, or to sign up to the so-called Norway option, for example.

These five days of debate look to be just the start of weeks of Brexit wrangling in Parliament. MPs have already shown they’re willing to take back control of the process from ministers. Ultimately, their best option will be handing that control over to the public by giving them a People’s Vote on Brexit.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “How does this ‘meaningful vote’ debate actually work?”

  • What on earth is going on? There is more time allocated to ‘what to do about what May dreamed up (on her own, it would seem)’ if it is not accepted than time was allocated for debate in the Commons about brexit during the past 2 years.

    The EU has said the deal that May offered was acceptable to them, Period. No alterations or changes or anything at all would be considered by them at all.

    The Norway route has been dismissed so many times that it is surprising to see it appear in print as an option. Aside from anything else Norway has said no thank you.

    Everything that is on offer by May includes continued FOM, contributions to the EU without representation (remember what the Americans objected to all those years ago?) and a closed door to negociating trade agreements with an open door to those who want to sell to us.

    I could sit here all night commenting on what madness this all is but I am sure all of us have the same understanding of the situation.

    Key question is.. Will Corbyn come to the rescue or dance around the funny farm with May?

  • Other countries also have backward looking groups who want to break away from the EU and set up unaccountable little states which could go to war with each other as they did between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1945 or even 1989. If we in Britain set the wrong example a Europe of warring state could reappear with all the horrors of modern warfare that we see now in the Middle East. And we must realise that 21 miles of sea between us and the continent is not going t save us again as it has ever since 1066.

    This is potentially more important than trade deals and should be taken into account in our need to stay in the EU