ON Thursday the fate of the British Prime Minister lay in the hands of fewer than 50 Tory MPs in Westminster. That’s the state of democracy in Britain today. That’s all that was needed to risk the loss of Boris Johnson’s majority and pave the way for his lies to be referred to the Commons Privileges Committee for investigation.

In the end it was enough. The expected mass uprising in Tory ranks was avoided. There was no vote and so no outward sign of rebellion. Boris Johnson was not there for the big event. Even the Conservative Party leader in Scotland Douglas Ross dodged the pressure to find a backbone and stayed away. But even the threat of a rebellion was enough and the Prime Minister may finally have to face the music, albeit with the volume control turned way down.

There can be literally no-one who really believes that Boris Johnson did anything but lie through his teeth when he insisted again and again that the Covid rules had not been breached by the series of booze-soaked parties held during lockdown at Downing Street.

The National: Downing Street

Certainly not the police, who have dished out more than fixed-penalty fines, including one for Johnson (so far) and others for his wife and for Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Others will almost certainly follow. It is hard to see the Prime Minister escaping further censure when he is known to have attended six of the 12 parties under police investigation.

Certainly not those members of the public – a not inconsiderable number – who have followed the rules and stayed away from loved ones who died alone and whose funerals were attended by the bare minimum number of mourners. And not those opposition members of parliament who have demanded time and time again that Boris Johnson be held to account for cynically and blatantly ignoring those rules he put in place for the rest of us.

Those politicians had hoped that yesterday they would face a Prime Minister not even on nodding terms with the truth. And that by expressing the country’s disgust at his behaviour they would shame him into accepting even a smidgeon of responsibility for destroying what public faith remained in the political process.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that those hopes were dashed. Johnson literally skipped the country rather than face the truth, heading off to India on a trade mission for which his presence had suddenly become essential.

Much of the drama was therefore stripped from the Commons debate on whether to send partygate to the Privileges Committee for investigations without the presence of nobody’s favourite villain in the chamber. The force of Keir Starmer’s moral attack was somewhat blunted without being able to see Johnson’s arrogant bluster crumble.

The National: Ian Blackford in the House of Commons

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford tried hard to summon a quiet fury by continually throwing the word liar in the direction of the Prime Minister’s empty chair but, disappointingly, that repeated breach of an outdated Commons protocol did not provoke the Speaker to order him to leave the House. Perhaps not even Lindsay Hoyle could work up the necessary energy to defend the obvious insanity of a ban on the word liar to describe Johnson. In truth, he would have a better chance of successfully arguing that black is white.

Boris Johnson, of course, continues to argue just that. Even from India he was continuing to tell the media that he had done nothing wrong, that no rules had been broken, that he had done nothing to undermine the authority of Parliament, yet more insults for those millions of people who had done the right thing, even at considerable personal cost.

All this does more than simply undermine trust in politicians, although it is certainly successful in that. Perhaps even more dangerously it undermines trust in the rules themselves. After all, if those who impose the rules undermine them so frequently and so casually, are the rest of us being taken for mugs for obeying them so rigorously? Not only did we allow loved ones to die alone, but we did so needlessly. If Boris Johnson considers it unnecessary to follow the rules, people ask what he knows that he is keeping from the rest of us? If – God forbid – there is a pressing need for another lockdown, how many people will think what’s good enough for Downing Street is good enough for them?

This feeling of shifting moral sands has been encouraged by the mainstream coverage this past week of Nicola Sturgeon briefly forgetting to wear a mask at a public gathering.

Placing this news so high in television news bulletins – sometimes as prominently as breaking news of the partygate scandal – encouraged a suggested equivalence of these events.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe for a second that Nicola Sturgeon should be given an easy ride by the media. Journalists have a responsibility to hold power to account and that applies equally to all governments of all political hues.

But the media also has a responsibility to judge the relative importance of events and to reflect that in their coverage. These are – and should be – journalistic decisions rather than political ones. These can sometimes be fine distinctions but not in this case. The vast majority of people see a world of difference between a Prime Minister imposing tough but vital restrictions before callously and purposefully breaking them and a First Minister who makes a genuine mistake and forgets to wear a mask for a very brief period before realising the error and correcting it.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at Dundee Law in Dundee at the launch for the SNP's campaign bus, which will tour Scotland in the 21 days before the local elections. Picture date: Friday April 15, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS SNP. Photo

Report the First Minister’s mistake by all means but treating it with the same prominence as the Prime Minister’s stream of lies is at best mischievous and at worst confuses the public and encourages them to believe that these are the same thing. That is simply not true.

The public fury at Johnson’s lies is driven by outrage at the way in which a head of state can lie so blatantly with seeming impunity. It seemed as if his arrogance would pull him through, as if his constant insistence that he had done nothing wrong would transfix his MPs and render them incapable of acting against him.

The first sign that he may have miscalculated came on Wednesday night when the Government had to withdraw its amendment aimed at delaying any decision on referring the issue to the privileges committee until after the much-delayed Sue Gray report into the matter. The official excuse for abandoning that amendment was that the committee had no intention of dealing with the matter until after the Gray report had been issued. The reality was the amendment was never going to win the support of the House.

From India, Johnson suggested that MPs were somehow stopping him from focusing on “what matters for the future of the country”.

What really matters for the country – and by “the country” it’s a fair assumption that Johnson means Britain – is that this Prime Minister is removed from office as quickly as possible. He must then be replaced by someone willing, among other things, to listen to the elected government of Scotland which is on the verge of a remarkable triumph in the council elections in a matter of weeks, provided yet another mandate – if another was needed – for a second independence referendum before the end of 2023.

But what is more likely to happen is that Boris Johnson retains his grip on power while the police continue their investigations. Astonishingly the Metropolitan Police has agreed to hold off releasing any more information on that process until after the council elections on May 5.

Johnson will then shrug off at least one – and possibly three – more partygate fines and probably do less badly than the 800-seat loss in the elections predicted by pollsters seven days ago. The Privileges Committee will issue a low-level sanction which Johnson will ignore and carry on regardless. And those Tory MPS currently angry with their leader will follow the example of the party’s leader in Scotland and lose their uncharacteristic fervour for change at the top.

But even if I’m wrong and Johnson is ousted, Scotland’s best hope for the future remains unchanged. The Conservatives will remain in power in Westminster, whoever is the new Prime Minister will adopt the same philosophy and the same policies and maintain the same morally bankrupt system of government.

Scotland is already more than halfway out of the United Kingdom and whether Boris Johnson remains in No 10 or is kicked out should give us no reason to pause and interrupt that journey.