Discontent is growing in the Conservative Party amid a toxic stream of lockdown parties, leaving drinks and ‘work events’. Sir Roger Gale is one of five Tory MPs to publicly call for Boris Johnson to resign. He speaks to Yahoo News UK’s Nadine Batchelor-Hunt about why he’s finally run out of patience - and questions whether the PM even wants the top job anymore.
Sir Roger Gale is a Conservative stalwart. He's been the MP for North Thanet in Kent for almost 40 years. From Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson, the 78-year-old is a senior figure in the party and has witnessed prime ministers come and go, rise and fall.
Indeed, in many ways, he has seen the best and the worst of parliament - and watched one of its most turbulent periods in the post-war era. Striking, then, that when asked if any of Johnson's predecessors in the office of prime minister would conduct themselves as he has, Sir Roger swiftly says: "No, absolutely not".
"I've been to garden parties at Downing Street under Theresa, under John Major, under David Cameron, probably under Margaret Thatcher. David Cameron used to have summer barbecues himself, cook the burgers himself, there's nothing wrong with that.
"If Theresa had a party, she had a party that was legal and formal and above board - with proper caterers," he says.
Referring to recent allegations of multiple parties at Number 10, Sir Roger says: “What's wrong is that, while the nation is still in mourning. Number 10 shouldn't have done it - I mean, none of the others would have done that... they have more sensitivity."
Number 10 was shaken to its core on Thursday night when The Telegraph revealed that staff had held two parties on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip. A suitcase of alcohol was reportedly wheeled into the building and the prime minister's son's swing was broken in the garden. One staffer is believed to have set up an impromptu DJ set - a laptop placed on a photocopier.
On Friday, Downing Street scrambled to apologise to the Palace - but the damage was done. Who can forget the stark image of a masked Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral?
"The party on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral was gross, grotesque and deeply insensitive and wholly improper, probably illegal," says Sir Roger, who was once a special constable with the British Transport Police.
"And the idea that people can wander through Whitehall with a suitcase and stagger into Downing Street... I don't know how they got in.
"I have a huge amount of time and affection for the constabulary - and they do a pretty good job - but this stuff came in to Downing Street. Somebody didn't do their job properly."
And as senior civil servant Sue Gray completes her investigation into the scale of wrongdoing - which may be completed as early as next week - admissions of impropriety keep coming.
On Friday, Johnson's former director general of the COVID-19 Task Force confessed she, too, had a leaving party - in the Cabinet Office - during lockdown. And, later that day, The Mirror reported that 'wine-time Fridays' in Number 10 were a regular event during lockdown under the prime minister's watch.
Sir Roger makes it clear his concerns about Johnson are not new, with their foundations laid long before the growing list of problematic gatherings involving senior government figures. For Sir Roger, they are a symptom of a much deeper problem with Johnson.
"I've had concerns about him before he even became prime minister," says Sir Roger. "He did an assassination job on Theresa May... I promised to give Mr Johnson the same degree of loyalty as he afforded his predecessor. And I'm keeping that promise."
Sir Roger says the "tipping point" for him in regards to Johnson came during Brexit, when the PM "tore up" his pledge on ensuring there would be no border down the Irish Sea. "You cannot as a country, sign an agreement and then renege on it," he says.
Within the Conservative Party, the ultimate expression of dissatisfaction in a prime minister is to send a letter of no-confidence to the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. If 15% of Tory MPs do so (which is 54 MPs of the current party) then the PM faces a humiliating vote of no-confidence.
Sir Roger says he submitted his letter a year ago, long before reports of COVID garden parties first emerged, and that they were sparked by that infamous drive to Barnard Castle.
"I was probably the first, if not the only person, to call out Cummings publicly and to say that he had to go," he said. "After [a 1922 Committee] meeting I doorstepped the prime minister as he was coming out - and I told him: 'If you don't get rid of that man, he will bring you down.' And I think that's what Cummings is determined to do."
Cummings, the prime minister's estranged former special adviser, left Number 10 in late 2020 - and has since been a vocal critic of Johnson, referring to him as "the Trolley". Since leaving his post, Cummings has openly spoken about his desire to help remove Johnson from office.
Watch: Tory MP warns Boris Johnson 'one more strike and he's out'
When asked if he stood by his comments on Wednesday, in which he described the prime minister as a “dead man walking”, Sir Roger said he did. But he also said, even if enough letters of no confidence were sent to trigger a confidence vote, he was unsure whether Johnson would lose.
"I have no idea, I really have no idea," he said. "Whatever I said now, might not be the same by Monday... [MPs] are going to go home, back in their constituencies... and their constituency associations, like mine, are going to meet all will have a voice, and voice opinions. And those opinions will have to be heeded by the members, because it is the associations that select the member."
On what he thinks Johnson's exit should look like, Sir Roger says: "The dignified way to go would be for him to realise that the writing is on the wall, and to say that he intends to stand aside and to trigger a leadership contest himself. In a similar way that Thatcher did."
"Margaret Thatcher actually survived the vote of no-confidence," he goes on. "But I think that she considered that her authority was so badly damaged, because patently almost half the parliamentary party had no confidence, that she said she was going. And went."
However, while fiercely critical of the prime minister, Sir Roger also insists he wants to be "fair", and not shy away from listing some of what he sees as "things that Johnson has done well".
Despite voting remain, Sir Roger says he applauds Johnson for "getting Brexit done" and praises the UK's vaccination programme. "Apart from a pretty rocky start at the beginning and some errors of judgement on lockdowns, by and large, he's handled the COVID pandemic fairly well."
But he also questions whether Johnson still wants to be in the top job, expressing concern about the toll the constant stream of scandals may be having on his wife and young children.
"I'm not even sure that he actually wants the job anymore," he says. "Johnson is a person who likes to be liked... who needs to be liked... and he must be hating it."
On who should replace Johnson, Sir Roger won't be drawn.
“One, there is no vacancy at the moment. Second, we don't know who's going to stand." But, he adds: "We have a lot of good people, so we don't actually need this situation."
And he’s not the only Tory thinking it.
Watch: No 10 apologises to the Queen as PM fights off Tory revolt