The role of the monarch is to be completely politically neutral and it is one of the great triumphs of the Queen’s 67-year reign that she has succeeded in being exactly that.
That quality, too, should be the model for the Speaker of the House of Commons.
According to Parliament’s own website, ‘the Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times’.
‘The Speaker is the chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons and must remain politically impartial at all times’ according to Parliament’s website
Imagine the Queen had intervened in the Tory leadership race, casually dropping into a speech that she didn’t much like Boris Johnson (pictured). Quite rightly, people would be outraged
We should have no idea what his or her personal political views are, let alone be nursing the dark suspicion that those personal views may be influencing their procedural decisions and parliamentary interventions.
But that’s not how the current Speaker, John Bercow – unarguably the most partisan and controversial Speaker in modern political history – clearly sees the role.
This week he’s been in Washington, noisily letting it be known with characteristic grandeur that, despite all his promises to the contrary, he won’t be stepping down – at least until Brexit is resolved.
If one of his distinguished and wonderfully impartial predecessors, such as Betty Boothroyd or George Thomas, had delayed their departure, that would have been absolutely fine.
We should have no idea what the current Speaker’s personal political views are
It is true that, as Mr Bercow says, ‘momentous events’ are taking place and procedural continuity in the Commons would be helpful as the complex Brexit debate lumbers towards its as yet unknown conclusion.
However, where he is quite wrong is not only in characteristically placing himself centre-stage in that debate but also doing so little to conceal his personal views.
It is public knowledge that he voted Remain in the 2016 referendum and that his wife’s car has proudly displayed a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker.
I voted Remain, too, so it’s not his views I disagree with but his right to voice them publicly while in office.
Throw in a series of parliamentary interventions of his which have clearly favoured Remainers and which understandably enraged Brexiteers, and you can see that the Speaker’s traditional impartiality seems to be have been tossed out of a Westminster window into the Thames to be carried away by the next ebb tide.
Theresa May could have been forgiven for believing that her political opponents were no longer led by Jeremy Corbyn
Any other previous holder of the office would have been horrified to have been found out in this way but not the vainglorious Mr Bercow.
In his speech in America, he said: ‘The idea that Parliament could be sidelined in the debate over Brexit… is unimaginable.’
What he surely means is that the idea of him being sidelined in the debate over Brexit is unimaginable; at least to him.
He then went on to enthusiastically endorse Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt – both contenders to be the next Tory leader – partly for their intellectual self-confidence and partly because they don’t quibble with his decisions.
For goodness sake, the Speaker is meant to be a servant of the Commons, not dramatically intervening in contentious party politics.
But Mr Bercow – who has been described as an ‘egotistical preening popinjay’ and certainly likes the sound of his own voice – doesn’t see it that way. He regards the job of Speaker as far more important than it actually is.
It is small wonder, then, that Mr Bercow’s (pictured in Parliament) decision to stay on – after already serving for ten years – has angered Brexiteers
For example, two years ago, after the Brexit vote and at a time when Britain badly needed America as a political and economic ally, Mr Bercow felt it was his place to rule that President Trump should not be invited to address Parliament because of his racism and sexism.
Such a decision should not have been his to make. The Commons as a whole should have decided. But, characteristically, Mr Bercow made it himself.
On and on he went, with controversial intervention following controversial intervention.
Last December, he enabled the process that eventually resulted in the Government being ruled in contempt of Parliament for its failure to publish the legal advice it had received on the Brexit deal.
Then he enraged Brexiteers by allowing an amendment that forced the Prime Minister to deliver a ‘Plan B’ within three working days of her own EU withdrawal deal being blocked – something that previously had been thought constitutionally impossible.
The amendment was duly passed, which ordinarily might have vindicated the Speaker’s decision.
But this is no ordinary Speaker – Mr Bercow’s pro-Remain views were well known, but now they were even more so, damaging both his own standing and that of his office in the process.
We no longer had an impartial Speaker. Instead, we had a clearly partisan one who, unabashed and unrepentant, seemed to be relishing his time in the political limelight.
Amendments favouring the Remain cause have been called while others that favoured Brexit fell mysteriously by the procedural wayside.
Then he summarily decided that the beleaguered Prime Minister could not present her deal for a third time unless ‘substantial changes’ were made.
More than once, Theresa May could have been forgiven for believing that her political opponents were no longer led by Jeremy Corbyn but by the Speaker of the House.
Small wonder, then, that Mr Bercow’s decision to stay on – after already serving for ten years – has angered Brexiteers.
Not only must Brexit be approved by the whole Commons but it must get past a clearly biased Speaker. And then came his appearance this week in Washington, encouraging one of his favourite ideas – that political intervention could still block a No Deal Brexit.
So is there nothing to be done? Will no one rid the Commons of this most turbulent of Speakers?
It is a little-known constitutional fact that the Commons can get rid of Mr Bercow whenever it wants.
As someone who prides himself on his procedural expertise, he must be aware that a vote of no confidence can be passed on the Speaker.
All it requires is a motion proposing that ‘this House has no confidence in the Speaker’, to be passed by a majority of the Commons. If that happened, Mr Bercow would be out of a job.
There is second way he could be removed. We have a centuries-old precedent whereby the Speaker, who is elected in his or her own right as an MP, is not being challenged when they stand in a general election.
But that protocol could change if there was unhappiness with Mr Bercow and rivals could stand against him so the good folk of Buckingham could decide his fate.
Even if either of those two challenges to his authority happened, the fact is that the office of Speaker has already been irrevocably tarnished by Mr Bercow’s partisan posturings.
Indeed, when a parliamentarian as reasonable and thoughtful as Lord (William) Hague calls for the next Speaker to be elected by secret ballot, you know something has gone very wrong with Britain’s long and globally respected tradition of open government.
Sadly, by serving his own ego, Mr Bercow has traduced the office of Speaker. His antics this week underline the fact that it is time for him to go. A vote of confidence in him cannot come soon enough.
Beyond Brexit by Professor Vernon Bogdanor is published by I. B. Tauris