From journalist Nicholas Watt on Twitter:

With two Tory MPs supporting Theresa May’s deal she has one breakthrough: enough tellers for her #Brexit vote

I believe this is a reference to some system in use in the House of Commons. What is Mr. Watt referring to here? That two MPs need to be in favour to have a vote at all? Two MPs to count the votes?

(I'm aware that the tweet is humorous — but I don't understand the joke)


2 Answers 2


From Parliament's website.

Four tellers are required for a division to take place: two representing those voting for the motion and two representing those voting against. Two tellers - one from each side - are present in each division lobby to ensure a fair count. The result is then reported back to the occupant of the Chair, or the Woolsack, in the Chamber.

So to even have the vote the PM requires two publicly committed MPs on the Yes side.

Further definitions that may be of relevance for this answer can all be found on the same website.


Divisions are used for counting those in favour or against a motion when there is a vote in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The House literally divides, with members choosing to file through one of two lobbies on either side of the Chamber where they are counted and their names recorded.

Division Lobby

Division lobbies are the corridors that run along either side of the Chamber in both Houses. They are used to record the votes of members when there is a division. In the House of Commons the division lobbies are called the Aye Lobby and the No Lobby. In the House of Lords they are known as the Content Lobby and the Not Content Lobby.


Tellers are appointed to verify the count when there is a division in the Commons or the Lords and to report the result back to the House...

Tellers, who are often party whips, are not counted in the totals of those voting for or against a motion. They are, however, taken into account when a quorum is required for a division.

  • 16
    @MartinBonner I you cannot get even two MPs to support the measure then there is no reason for holding a vote, because it is evident that it has not enough support.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 16:43
  • 2
    Could you explain further what a 'division', a 'teller', and a 'division lobby' are in this context for readers who aren't familiar with British parliamentary jargon?
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 16:44
  • 1
    So what is the joke then? That she has 2 tellers, who would count nobody (because nobody else would vote in her favour); or that she only needs 2 tellers because an opposing view won't be tolerated (Hence there don't need to be 4 tellers)? Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 22:41
  • 10
    The joke is that it's a surprise she's managed to find two people, who will count nobody @Robert.
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 5:15
  • 1
    @reirab : When a vote is called, the MPs divide into 2 groups, one voting YES and one voting NO. This is commonly called a division. The Tellers are the men who count the numbers in each group, and then tell the House the result. The vote, when a division is required, is physically done by the Members walking through from the main chamber into the two division lobbies: a lobby is another chamber, located just off the main chamber, one of which is the YES lobby, the other the NO lobby. Those who enter the YES lobby are counted as voting YES, those who enter the other as voting NO.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:45

When a vote is held in the House of Commons, each question is posed such that it can only be answered YES or NO. The votes are counted by persons called 'tellers', who count the number of votes cast (for I'm told teller means counting, as in a bank teller, not someone who tells the MPs the result).

By tradition, two tellers are appointed for each side of the question: the Government party nominates 1 to count the YES votes and 1 to count the NO votes, and so does the (main) Opposition party (so 4 in all, 2 for each).

The joke here is that so few MPs are willing to support Teresa May's proposal, that she can't even find 2 MPs in the whole House (not just in her own party) willing to vote YES on it.

(Qualification: No joke is funny if it has to be explained to you.)

  • 2
    "YES or NO": in the Commons, it's Aye or No. In the Lords, it's Content or Not Content. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:52
  • 2
    According to Wiktionary, the etymology of teller is "From Middle English tellere (“one who counts or enumerates; one who recounts or relates; teller”)". Hence while they do indeed tell everyone the result, I'd suggest the name comes from their role as the people who count the votes. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:54
  • "the Government party nominates": yes, unless there's a coalition, in which the two tellers could be from different (Government) parties. Could just remove the word "party" here. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:56
  • Hi Steve. The persons who enquired here for advice needed it spelled out in simple terms, which I'm sure you'll agree is best. I do not quibble with your quibbling, but you are only clouding the issue. :-)
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 15:30
  • I certainly agree that we don't want to overcomplicate our answers. However, I also feel that it's important to be factually correct as well. In this instance, IMHO, removing the word "party", and dropping the description of the etymology of teller which may be incorrect, would both simplify the answer and remove possible inaccuracies. But I don't feel strongly enough to edit the answer directly, nor to downvote it! Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 15:53

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .