Theresa May insists that her Cabinet is united behind her, evoking echoes of Roman senators who united behind Julius Caesar before using his back as a knife block.
Her position is little better, facing ritual humiliation at the hands of Boris Johnson whenever she asserts her leadership.
His “four red lines” demand on the eve of Tory conference follows his 4,000-word diatribe immediately prior to the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence and has the same two-fold motivation.
Both serve to undermine May and to strengthen Johnson’s claim to replace her as soon as possible.
Her desperate efforts to portray the Foreign Secretary as fully onside are reminiscent of the Iraqi general assuring the world’s media that the US-led invasion force had not entered Baghdad as TV coverage of armoured columns crossing river bridges into the city provided his backdrop.
The truth that she and her supporters cannot face is that her weakness in the wake of her disastrous snap election call has made him all but unsackable.
Her ally Damian Green tried to rap Johnson’s knuckles, telling him to give advice in private and abide by collective decisions, but his ambitious colleague feels that he holds all the cards.
If she fails to sack him for successive provocations, his stature, in his estimation, is enhanced and, if she, belatedly, has enough, they both know that his campaign for Tory leadership, powered by influential media patrons, will shift into top gear.
Few Tory insiders expect May, despite her insistence, to lead them into the next election. She is in all respects a dead woman walking.
She cannot admit to self-evident errors such as calling a snap election for which she admits her party wasn’t prepared, threatening means-testing for pensioner benefits and the dementia tax and pushing up annual student tuition fees to £9,250.
Her pledge to freeze tuition fees so soon after increasing them, together with raising the minimum earnings level to trigger student debt repayment, smacks of panic rather than principle.
May promises vaguely to “look at” a number of policy albatrosses round her neck, confirming that she is all at sea and reinforcing the contrast between her ship of fools and the increasingly confident and demonstrably competent Labour craft commanded by Jeremy Corbyn.