By William James
LONDON (Reuters) -Boris Johnson issued the latest of a string of denials on Monday that he and his staff had broken lockdown rules after a photograph appeared of the prime minister and more than a dozen others drinking wine in the garden of his Downing Street office.
The photograph of the gathering, reportedly taken in May last year, follows reports of other apparent social events during times when his government had told Britons they should not mix with others.
Growing public anger at the gatherings has raised doubts about Johnson's authority within his Conservative Party as ministers consider new restrictions to control a surge in COVID-19 cases. The Conservatives lost a long-held parliamentary seat in a by-election last week.
The picture, published by the Guardian newspaper late on Sunday, shows Johnson with his partner Carrie, who appears to be holding their newborn son, and two other people at a table on a terrace in the Downing Street garden with cheese and wine.
Nearby is another table of four other people, and a short distance away are a larger group standing on the grass around a table with bottles of wine. At the time, the government had told the public they could only meet one person in an outdoor public place, keeping two metres apart.
"Those were people at work talking about work," Johnson told broadcasters when asked about the picture and whether he understood why people were angry and might now be less likely to follow future government restrictions.
Earlier Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said it had not been against the regulations because Downing Street is a place of work as well as Johnson's residence.
"It is palpably not a social gathering, because you had people in work suits, following meetings that they were having at work," Raab told Times Radio.
The opposition Labour Party seized on the photograph, calling it further evidence that Johnson and his staff did not take the restrictions they had imposed on others seriously.
"Ask yourself, is that a work meeting going on? Or is that a social event? And I think the answer is pretty obvious," Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters.
"During that period that were funerals of people where very few people could go and mourn those that had tragically died ... that's the contrast."
Johnson has faced a barrage of criticism since a video emerged showing his staff laughing and joking about a Downing Street party during a 2020 Christmas lockdown when such festivities were banned.
Raab said the latest photograph to appear was taken on a day when the government had just held news conference and that sometimes staff had a drink in the garden after a long day.
Besides anger over alleged parties, Johnson is grappling with a rebellion inside his party over the direction of his government which critics say is chaotic and has dramatically expanded the power of the state.
Brexit minister David Frost resigned on Saturday over disillusionment with the direction of the government. Speaking to reporters on Monday he cited his opposition to "coercive policies" on COVID.
(Reporting by William James; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Heavens)