Why are they running and where are they going? Like naked mole rats scurrying endlessly in a plastic burrow, foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the Sun editor Tony Gallagher are photographed together. They’re seemingly in the belief that the Conservative party and its media allies have a destination, somewhere to get to, something urgent to do – other than wait for the tide of history to engulf them.

Gallagher seems more aware of the futility of it all than Johnson, who keeps going like a puffed-up hamster. That’s right, keep turning the wheel, there’s a treat in store. Gallagher meanwhile appears not just breathless but depressed. He looks tired, tired of it all – not just the jogging but the lies, the distortions, the greasy pole. Perhaps this picture reveals Johnson’s latest move in a campaign to undermine Theresa May – is the Sun about to publish his latest manifesto for a pure clean Brexit? If so, the tabloid editor seems less than inspired by the machiavellian game.

Leaders like to be photographed running, playing sport, being manly. Yet Johnson seems unaware both of the ludicrous tropical shorts he has on, and the death and despair in Gallagher’s more worldly eyes. This is power running when the Tories are visibly running out of power. What do you do when the game is up? The contrasting demeanours of the ambitious would-be party leader and the newspaper editor typify two human approaches to catastrophe. You can look into the dark, or ignore it and carry on as if nothing was wrong. Johnson is playing his old games, wooing the Murdoch press, being seen jogging – because what else is he to do? Accept that it was all for nothing, the chicanery, the showmanship, the Brexiteering?

You can almost pity them, for who could predict the current rapid crumbling of Conservatism? A year ago Johnson was part of a winning team, even if he was not in the position he wanted. The Conservative press was also on a winning team, the Brexit team that had triumphed after years of endless newspaper stories on the supposed abuses and enormities inflicted on Britain by the EU.

Now it all looks like dust as Britain seems poised for revolution by the ballot box. There has never been a more leftwing moment in British history. You’d have to go back to the Diggers and Ranters in the 17th century to find a movement as radical as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and yet, instead of being marginal, the utopians are winning hearts and minds. What can the Sun do when people are ready to vote in a self-proclaimed Marxist chancellor of the exchequer? The world has truly turned upside down.

Keep running, seems to be Johnson’s approach, and everything will be all right. The vileness of human nature will soon come to Conservatism’s aid as it always has. Fear and loathing have plenty of mileage in them yet. Gallagher does not seem convinced. He’s right to be fed up. Something inexplicable has happened. The words of the Sun have been immensely powerful for so long. It was the Sun wot won it so many times. Wars and strikes, elections and referendums – the struggles of generation after generation have been clinched by the Conservative press. Now look where it’s all led, running along breathlessly by Johnson while he plots to seize a throne that is not made of iron but tin.

A whole era in history is running to nowhere in this picture, an age in which every assumption, every truism pointed rightward. The free market, the property-owning democracy, Victorian values, austerity – the words echo in the cold early morning Manchester air.

This is a photograph of power, yet the power in it is dissolving before our eyes. In the 19th century we might be looking at a painting or photograph of a Tory statesman and newspaper owner together on the grouse moor, or the deck of a steam ship. The unconcealed and unconvincing friendship of politician and editor is a modern equivalent of a scene out of an Anthony Trollope novel. Yet it all seems tired, sweaty, and lacking in style. How can this be happening? How can the mandate of heaven be so irretrievably lost by its hereditary possessors? Don’t even think about it. Just keep running into the grey nothingness ahead.

Jonathan Jones writes about art and politics for the Guardian