SOON after I was elected an MP in 2015, Speaker John Bercow invited me as a new boy for tea at his ornate Westminster apartments next door to Big Ben. He is an affable bloke, though with a certain air of self-importance. As is his wont, he was more than frank regarding other members of the Commons. “Parliament is intimate like a small village,” he mused. “Except with more than one village idiot.”

His frankness has now gotten him into deeper political manure. First came his public refusal to grant President Trump the privilege of addressing the combined Houses of Parliament in the great cavern that is Westminster Hall, that most hallowed bit of the Palace of Westminster. Now Bercow has roused the wrath of the pro-Brexit Tory Little Englanders by remarking – in private to a group of students at Reading University – that he voted Remain. Note that the Speaker made these remarks on February 3, three days before his comments about Mr Trump. The fact that the tape has now been leaked to The Sunday Telegraph suggest Brexiteers – who remain paranoid there is a plot afoot to derail their mad plan to return to the 18th century – are anxious to get rid of Bercow as fast as they can.

Of course any Speaker is notionally supposed to be politically neutral. Yet anyone who knows anything about the history of the Speakership knows the post has always been flagrantly political and that the government of the day frequently tries to manipulate matters to get a compliant Speaker – and usually succeeds. In 1895, during the parliamentary fire-fight over Irish Home Rule and free trade, the Unionists and Liberals went to war over the Speakership. Again, in 1951, the incoming Conservative government deliberately imposed a Tory Speaker in order to isolate Labour from the parliamentary machinery, the better to force through de-nationalisation. The attack on Bercow has nothing to do with the Speaker’s impartiality and everything to do with Brexit.

The flavour of Bercow’s comments to the Reading students may explain why the Tory right are choking over their cornflakes. He expressed a worry that, following a “hard” Brexit, there would be a rush to dismantle the social protections offered under EU rules. Worse, he said: “If you asked me if I think freedom of movement has been a positive, the honest answer is that it has been a positive certainly for the country.” Remember that Bercow is the first Jewish Speaker – his grandparents were immigrants from Romania. Here we might find a clue to Bercow’s internationalism, which sets him apart from the Little Englanders on the Conservative benches.

Is there any plan behind Bercow’s pronouncements? He might be demob happy. He originally promised to serve only nine years, which ends in June next year. So he has little to lose by staking out a new role, either in politics or outside Parliament. If nothing else, his anti-Trump pronouncements should give him golden access to the lucrative American lecture circuit. Or, as pro-Brexit critics fear, he may be plotting to hang on till the next election in 2020, just to thwart the Tory Village Idiots. Remember that Bercow was a rising star on the Tory benches till he was sacked from the shadow cabinet by the odious Michael Howard for being too liberal. In the latter days of the 1997-2010 Labour government, there were rumours Bercow might cross the floor of the House, though I suspect he enjoys his maverick status too much to tie himself to any administration.

Bercow’s main chance came in 2009, when he replaced former Glasgow Labour MP Michael Martin as Speaker. Martin, you will remember, had to resign in disgrace after trying to block the publication of MPs’ expenses claims. Bercow only won election as Speaker with Labour votes. The speculation is that he polled as few as three from his fellow Tory MPs. I think that’s exaggerated – Bercow has a coterie of Conservative favourites whom he calls regularly to speak. However, nobody could say he is regarded as a friend by the Conservative side. This is because he has gone out of his way to let MPs – particularly opposition MPs – hold the Executive to account.

UNDER Bercow’s activist Speakership, ministers are called to the Commons to answer so-called Urgent Questions on an almost daily basis. And he usually keeps them glued to the green benches till every backbencher has asked their individual question. This explains why David Cameron hatched a plot to get rid of Bercow at the time of the 2015 General Election. This failed, however, as Bercow’s popularity with the backbenches has made him invulnerable. Till now, that is.

One of the great myths about the office of Speaker is that somehow he or she is there to protect the right to debate freely. History tells us otherwise. In the earliest days, the Speaker in the English Parliament represented the authority of the Crown and was there to ensure nobody thought the people were sovereign. A little like the anachronistic role of the Secretary of State for Scotland under devolution. Only during the revolutionary English Civil War in the 1640s did the Speaker side with an insurrectionary, republic parliament against the Crown.

After the Restoration – a compromise between the Crown and the big capitalist landowners – the Speaker became the creature of whoever formed the government. He was there to ensure MPs did as the Cabinet wanted. Speakers often simultaneously held Cabinet jobs. The modern convention of a “neutral” speaker as parliamentary referee only arose in the 19th century when the industrial capitalist class entered Parliament and demanded political parity with the landowners. The Speaker became a necessary buffer, otherwise parliamentary in-fighting would have ended in revolution.

The Speaker’s cosmetic impartiality found a new use in the 20th century with the final (if belated) victory of universal suffrage. It serves as a fig leaf to cover the lack of real democracy in the so-called Mother of Parliaments. Parliamentary democracy is now increasingly undermined by the power of international banking capital, by a mass media owned by a few billionaires, and by a gigantic business lobbying industry entrenched at Westminster. Above all by the centralisation of power in the executive – a power grab that necessitated Supreme Court intervention to force a parliamentary vote on Brexit.

Bercow’s speakership is certainly a welcome reaction to this executive power grab but it hardly represents any permanent safeguard. I like Bercow as a person but I have no illusions about him. He has embraced with alacrity the new English Votes for English Laws changes to parliamentary procedures – imposed without legislation. He may order ministers to appear in the chamber more often but, like David Davies, they flaunt their refusal to give straight answers. The Commons remains as politically toothless as an old dog. Bercow affects a desire to modernise Westminster. But as the Prince of Salina says in Lampedusa’s sublime novel The Leopard, sometimes you have to change things in order that everything important may stay the same.

It is one thing to defend Bercow against the Brexiteers. Quite another to imagine Westminster is open to genuine popular democracy. For that, we need an independent Scottish parliament and a genuine transfer of sovereignty to the Scottish people.