Dominic Raab said a photo of Boris Johnson, his wife and staff members in the Downing Street garden during the first coronavirus lockdown was a work meeting because they were “all in suits”.
In the photo, from 15 May 2020 and published by The Guardian newspaper on Monday, the prime minister, his wife Carrie Symonds, who appears to be holding their newborn baby, and up to 17 staff are seen in the garden.
There appears to be wine and cheese on table and a lack of social distancing between members of Downing Street staff.
At the time, gatherings of more than two people were banned in outdoor public places, although that restriction would not have applied in a private garden. Later in the pandemic, gatherings were also banned in private gardens.
On Monday, Raab, the deputy prime minister and justice secretary, tried to defend the gathering by claiming those in attendance were all wearing suits.
He told Kay Burley on Sky News that Downing Street is “fundamentally a place of work”.
He added: “They’re all in suits,” to which Burley interrupted: “No they’re not.”
In the photo, it appears that many staff are in sweaters, shirts or polo shirts, while one person even appears to be wearing white trainers.
Raab said: “Some of them have taken their jackets off.”
Burley then asked if it only counts as a business meeting if they “have a suit on”.
Raab said: “Let me answer. It’s a place of work but it’s also the residence of the prime minister.”
No 10 has insisted the gathering was a work meeting.
A spokesperson said: ”Work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months.
"On this occasion there were staff meetings following 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."
In a separate interview with Times Radio on Monday, Raab said: “Downing Street used that garden as a place of work. They used it for work meetings.
“And sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week. And that’s not against the regulations.”
On the day the photo was taken, 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.”
He added: “Please stick with the rules, keep an eye on your family and don’t take risks.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner tweeted he was “doubtful it was against the law”, but that it may have been against guidance.
He said on Twitter that regulations at the time stated “you couldn’t be outside the place you were living without a reasonable excuse” and that working would be such a reason.
And that there was “no way of knowing from a pic that they weren’t working”.
On Monday, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I do think there is evidence of law-breaking not just on this occasion, but on multiple occasions. The country is sick of it.
“They want to see leadership from this prime minister and government, and at the moment they’re hiding last year they were having a party. People are fed up with it.”
In the photograph published by The Guardian, Mr Johnson can be seen sitting around a garden table with his then-fiancée Carrie, and two members of staff.
On the table are bottles of wine and a cheeseboard. Four other members of staff are sat around a second table a distance away. Nine people are then gathered on the grass, with another two sat on the floor to the right.
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.