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Dominic Raab has defended a picture showing Boris Johnson and his staff enjoying cheese and wine in the Downing Street garden during the first national lockdown, arguing “sometimes they will have a drink after a long day or a long week”.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary stressed the garden was a “place of work” and that it was not “against the regulations”, and a Downing Street spokesman said the photo showed colleagues “meeting to discuss work”.
The photo, obtained by the Guardian, showed Mr Johnson, his then-fiancee Carrie, and 17 other staff members in the garden on May 15 2020, with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard on a table in front of the Prime Minister.
Mr Raab told Times Radio: “Downing Street used that garden as a place of work. They used it for work meetings. The photo is from a day when, I think, the Prime Minister had just done a press conference.
“And sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week. And that’s not against the regulations.”
On Mr Johnson’s then-fiancee Carrie being there, Mr Raab said: “It is not just a place of work for all the staff that work in Number 10 and the Prime Minister, but it is also the residence of the Prime Minister and his very young family. I genuinely don’t think it gets classified as a party because Carrie popped down and spent a little bit of time there with her husband.”
Mr Raab reiterated on BBC Breakfast: “This wasn’t a social occasion. It was staff having a drink after a busy set of work meetings and the pressures of the day.”
No 10 has also insisted work meetings often took place in the garden.
On Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “These were individuals in Downing Street – officials, staff – who were meeting after the most recent press conference that day, so meeting out of hours.
“There were meetings taking place both inside and outside No 10.
“This shows colleagues who were required to be in work meeting following a press conference to discuss work.”
Asked why the Prime Minister’s wife was there, the spokesman said: “Downing Street is also a private residence for both the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
“The Prime Minister’s wife has use of her garden. It is effectively her garden.”
At the time the photo was taken, restrictions on meeting others were still in place and earlier that day, then-health secretary Matt Hancock had told the daily coronavirus briefing: “People can now spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like – and you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place. But please keep two metres apart.”
When asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he believed “someone or some group” was “dripping out leaks to bring Boris Johnson down”, the Deputy Prime Minister said “it’s certainly being done with an animus” but added he was against “speculating on these things”.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said a description of the photo as a work meeting “defies all sense of reasonableness”.
Ms Reeves told Good Morning Britain: “Last year, the Government were partying, this year the Government’s hiding. We need leadership from this Government and that is desperately lacking today. This is a Government who set the rules for everybody else and yet think they don’t apply for them. It is not acceptable.”
The Prime Minister has been asleep at the wheel since he received the latest Sage advice.
We need to tackle the spread of Omicron, support businesses and protect public services.
Boris Johnson is too weak to provide the leadership our country needs.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) December 19, 2021
Asked if she thinks Mr Johnson should step down, she said: “I think it is really difficult for the Prime Minister to set rules now and expect other people to follow them.
“(It) is just so clear on multiple occasions now that him and his ministers don’t stick by the very rules that they are requiring the rest of us to stick by … I think, frankly, a lot of us are just sick of it.”
Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer said “serious questions” need to be answered.
He told Sky News: “Everybody will have looked at that photograph and to suggest that that is a work meeting is a bit of a stretch by anybody’s analysis. I think there are very serious questions to be answered, but just look at the photo and ask yourself: is that a work meeting going on or is that a social event? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”
Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) said it “mind boggling for Raab to claim this was a necessary meeting”, adding: “Yet again the Conservative party is taking the public for fools. The evidence is staring us all in the face. It is scary to think Dominic Raab is supposed to run our justice system when he can’t even see blatant wrongdoing in a photo.”
Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, insisted it is “exhausting” for everyone across the country “who sacrificed so much to see the constant, flagrant disregard we have all been held in”.
She added: “We’re not sure how much more the Prime Minister expects us to take before he’ll accept that he has to be open with the public about these events.
“This supposed work meeting, with no pen, paper or laptop in sight, instead replaced with vital cheese and wine, shows that he presided over a culture of believing that the rules applied only to other people since early in the pandemic.”
The alleged gathering is one of a number which have been reported across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked with investigating the reports after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was removed from the probe after it was revealed he had known about a quiz held in his department.