When a Prime Minster loses all authority, resignation or pig headedness and electoral defeat are the normal courses of action.
Boris Johnson’s authority, like Monty Python’s famous parrot, has ceased to be.
We have the sight of a government in paralysis with the great entertainer cowed in his Downing Street bunker and his itchy feet MPs waiting for the tipping point when reticence is buried and calls for the PM to go becomes a clamour.
At the moment we are in an unreal world where pretence is everything. Johnson pretends he will lead his party into the next election and some of his footsoldiers pretend that the day can be saved by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to reality.
There is one aspect of the current saga that is being somewhat overplayed, if not misrepresented, and that relates to the report from civil servant Sue Gray on exactly what happened in the many new drinks venues that sprung up around Whitehall during lockdown.
Her job is to narrate facts and establish what happened. This is not an independent report, for she is not independent of government, she is employed by them. Her employment status guarantees a conflict of interest since she is being invited to incriminate her boss.
By its nature, her report will not knife a reputation in the way in which the late Sir John Chilcot endowed Tony Blair with a legacy on Iraq that will be the final word as far as historians are concerned.
That does not mean to say she does not have Johnson’s future in her hands. She can’t and won’t find him guilty of anything. She doesn’t need to. She merely has to establish where he was and why and juxtapose findings of fact against the Covid rules at the time to allow the readers of her report to arrive at their own conclusions.
The Metropolitan Police, who seem to think it is the responsibility of others to establish prima facie breaches of the law, will be forced to investigate if Gray does indeed establish facts that clearly point to law breaking.
Her report could be the first word in kickstarting a criminal investigation and the last word needed by MPs who will then make their move.
Can Johnson survive?
It’s possible. If the Gray report is sufficiently qualified, it might force MPs to think twice. Would-be cabinet assassins might judge that they will overplay their hand by forcing a leadership contest. Their ambitions might be reserved for another day.
I suspect, though, that the overwhelming issue for Conservative MPs is that his authority is hopelessly finished and therefore now is the time for him to go.
A fit of moral cowardice by the parliamentary party would merely usher another year of chaos, the defining characteristic of Johnson’s governing style, to the point when decline would be terminal.
Do MPs really want Boris Johnson to navigate the most electorally sensitive issue that will face the current government, that of the impending cost-of-living crisis that will define the terrain on which the next election will be fought?
‘Figure of fun’
When authority is gone, you are in office but not in power. You become a figure of fun and so does your party. The echoes of the resignations and defeats of previous leaders should weigh heavily on MPs.
Previous Conservative leaders paid a price for being defined by events. For Anthony Eden, the issue was Suez, for Harold Macmillan it was the Profumo scandal, for Ted Heath the miners’ strike of 1972, for Margaret Thatcher it was Europe and the poll tax, and for John Major it was black Wednesday. Europe also buried David Cameron and Theresa May.
The party’s not quite over, but Boris Johnson’s premiership appears to be drinking in the last-chance saloon with every bottle on the gantry empty.
It will all come to a head on the day of Sue Gray’s report. Then we will know if Johnson is a dead man walking.