What is parliamentary ping-pong – and how will it affect Brexit?

Potential Tory rebels have been placated with the promise of a further House of Lords amendment for a meaningful vote. What does this mean?


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MPs are currently voting on amendments proposed to the EU Withdrawal Bill by the House of Lords. The government suffered 15 defeats in the upper chamber on this legislation – 15 proposals for changing the process and outcome of Brexit.

When the House of Lords makes changes to legislation like this, its changes get passed back to the House of Commons to vote on.

The government is safe on most of these amendments – unlike among peers, there just isn’t a majority among MPs for them to pass.

But it has had to compromise with potential Tory rebels on the two vulnerable areas – membership of the customs union, and a “meaningful vote” on the negotiators’ deal for MPs.

With the former, Conservative MP Oliver Letwin tabled a compromise motion – signed by pro-EU Tory MPs and their Brexiteer colleagues – committing the government to pledging a “customs arrangement” with the EU (rather than risking rebels voting for the Lords’ amendment, which would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU).

With the latter, it looks like the government has made a deal with europhile Tory MPs planning to rebel by promising a new amendment in the House of Lords. This would encapsulate some – or all – of an amendment proposed by Tory MP Dominic Grieve on the “meaningful vote” (a compromised version, initially dismissed by the government, of the Lords amendment on the same subject).

The government has avoided defeat on the matter. According to reports, Tory rebels were given assurance by Theresa May just before voting began today that the government was open to accepting the thrust of the Grieve amendment, which it will put to the House of Lords in a bill.

“Following further assurances that further Govt amendments will come forward in the Lords, I will now be supporting the Govt,” tweeted Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP expected to rebel today. “For avoidance of any doubt the promised further amendment in the Lords must closely reflect Dominic Grieve’s amendment (or Lords likely to bring that forward themselves & for that to be passed).”

In the debate ahead of the votes, the solicitor general Robert Buckland indicated the government’s concession, saying there was “much merit” in the amendment’s requirement for MPs to vote on the government’s statement about its deal within a week of it being announced to the Commons.

Buckland also signalled a “structured discussion” with Tory rebels about introducing parts of the amendment in a new Lords motion.

Now that the government has avoided defeat on the “meaningful vote” in the Commons, what happens next?

This is where parliamentary ping-pong comes in: the term for back-and-forth of amendments to bills between the Commons and the Lords.

If the Commons makes amendments to a bill, the Lords has to agree, disagree or make alternative proposals. In the latter two scenarios, it sends the bill back to the Commons, which does the same – this carries on until both Houses agree on the exact wording of the bill.

The “meaningful vote” issue will bounce back to the Lords next week, in the form of an amendment – taking in some of Grieve’s amendment – from the government.

Unless the Lords agrees to the bill with no changes, it will then ping back to the Commons, which – if the government hasn’t climbed down enough to satisfy Tory rebels – could see another tense vote on the same subject.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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