Fresh pressure on Johnson as PM pictured at Downing St garden 'gathering during lockdown'

19 December 2021, 20:23 | Updated: 19 December 2021, 20:30

Boris Johnson, pictured on Friday, is under renewed pressure after a photo emerged of him and his wife in the Downing Street garden with up to 17 staff, allegedly during the first national lockdown.
Boris Johnson, pictured on Friday, is under renewed pressure after a photo emerged of him and his wife in the Downing Street garden with up to 17 staff, allegedly during the first national lockdown. Picture: Getty

By James Morris

Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure after a picture emerged of him in the Downing Street garden, allegedly during the first Covid lockdown last year, with up to 17 staff.

The Guardian, which published the picture, reported it was taken on 15 May: when social mixing between different households was limited to two people.

Mr Johnson is pictured at a table with wife Carrie and two other people who do not appear to be two metres away – which was the social distancing guidance at the time. On the table are bottles of wine and a cheeseboard.

Meanwhile, four other members of staff are sat around a second table on the opposite end of the terrace. Nine people are then gathered on the grass, with another two sat on the floor to the right.

Downing Street had previously characterised this as a staff meeting, saying the PM met “briefly with the then health and care secretary [Matt Hancock] and his team in the garden following a press conference”.

Tonight, a spokesperson again insisted it was a work meeting within the rules, telling The Guardian: "As we said last week, work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months. On this occasion there were staff meetings after a No 10 press conference.

"Downing Street is the prime minister's home as well as his workplace. The prime minister's wife lives in No 10 and therefore also legitimately uses the garden."

Following the emergence of the photograph, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: "I guess staff meetings look a bit different if you went to Eton?

"Enough is enough. Tell us the truth about what was going on in Downing Street from the very beginning immediately @BorisJohnson."

The alleged gathering is one of a number which have been reported across Whitehall last year when the wider country was under Covid restrictions.

But barrister Adam Wagner, an expert on Covid regulations, said he is “doubtful" the alleged 15 May gathering was "against the law”.

He tweeted: “The reality is that these people were at work, no way of knowing from a pic that they weren’t working, and unlike later that year gatherings weren’t separately banned in this context.”

Read more: Truss takes over as Brexit minister as PM tries to steady ship after Frost resignation

Nonetheless, the picture fuels the ongoing narrative used against Mr Johnson by opposition MPs of "one rule for them and another for us".

And it marks the end of another torrid week for the crisis-hit PM, who last night suffered the resignation of ally Lord Frost as Brexit minister. He cited "the current direction of travel" in Mr Johnson's administration.

On Friday, the PM was also forced to take the blame after the Conservatives lost the North Shropshire by-election. This was a safe Tory seat with a 23,000 majority.