On Sunday, Nadine Dorries tweeted: “This licence fee announcement will be the last.” On Monday afternoon, her department put out a press release which declared: “No decision on the future of the licence fee has been made.”

At the same time, Dorries told the Commons over and over again that she just wants to start a debate about the future of the licence fee.

What is going on? The Prime Minister needs to shore up his support in the parliamentary party, and bashing the BBC is one way of doing that.

“Nadine clobbers ‘biased’ BBC with £2 billion funding cut,” The Mail on Sunday reported, and went on:

“The BBC was last night on the brink of a war with the Government after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries hit the Corporation with a two-year licence fee freeze – as her allies warned that ‘the days of state-run television are over’.”

Dorries duly announced that the licence fee has indeed been frozen at its current level of £159 for the next two years, and will then rise by the rate of inflation until the end of 2027.

If Boris Johnson were not in such trouble, the settlement would have been “more generous”, an insider confirmed. Things changed “very suddenly” a few days ago.

No plan exists for what happens after 2027. A source with comprehensive knowledge of thinking within the DCMS yesterday told ConHome it was “unrealistic” to suppose the BBC could move to a subscription model by then.

There are technical limitations: streaming services are only available if, no matter how old, poor and technologically ill-equipped one may be, one has some device on which to receive them, and the superfast broadband to deliver them.

Beyond that, decisions have to be made about what the BBC is going in future to provide. It is not difficult, unless one is among its most highly paid employees, to see faults in the Corporation, and to note the unseemly relish with which it joins in the ancient British sport of hunting down whoever happens to be Prime Minister.

What is more difficult is to determine which parts of the BBC should, indeed must, be preserved. The World Service, most people would say, at a time when the Chinese, the Russians and others are pumping out their malign and mendacious versions of events.

To destroy the rest of the Corporation’s news gathering abilities would seem to most of us like an act of vandalism. Various other parts of its output could likewise be agreed to come under the heading of public service broadcasting: coverage of state occasions, Parliament, some of the musical, educational and children’s programmes, a list which can be lengthened or shortened according to personal taste.

Much of what the BBC does, though anomalous, is not contemptible.

And then there is the question of the BBC’s role, comparable to that of the NHS, as a great unifying national institution, whatever objections may be raised to how it is actually run.

In the conservative view of the world, institutions which have existed for a long time usually deserve a degree of loyalty, and should be adapted to changing circumstance rather than abolished.

But how to adapt the BBC, when broadcasting is changing at such astonishing speed, with the rise of powerful new competitors such as Netflix and YouTube?

Many of the young find Netflix more diverse, and more representative of the world they know, than the BBC now is. They are accustomed to paying subscriptions, but averse to paying the licence fee.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary and Minister of State for Media, yesterday reminded the House that the number of television licences bought last year fell by 700,000.

At the start of the month, Whittingdale gave an interview to the in which he suggested:

“Is it not better to fund a core BBC package through a central government grant and taxation?

“Instead of £159 a year, it would be a reduced amount to pay for the things an insufficient amount of people would be willing to pay for – news, current affairs and arts programmes.

“On top of that, two-thirds of the current fee could be a voluntary subscription (for populist programming).You wouldn’t have to pay it.”

The former minister said this was a “progressive” solution, removing the inconsistency of a “flat rate, poll tax” compulsory licence fee, which could have cross-party appeal.

One rather doubts whether either the Prime Minister or the Culture Secretary wishes to go that far. They wish to show the Thatcherites in their ranks how bold they are, without actually destroying or even much diminishing the BBC.