Dominic Raab insisted the image depicted a "work meeting" and defended the reasons why the prime minister's wife and newborn were at a business gathering
The deputy prime minister told ITV News it is "uncharitable" of people to criticise Boris Johnson and wife Carrie for enjoying cheese and wine with Whitehall staff after a "busy day" while the country was under a national lockdown last year.
Dominic Raab defended an image, shared with the Guardian, showing the PM and his wife, who appears to be holding their newborn baby, sitting at a table with a cheeseboard and wine along with two other people.
Small groups of people talking and drinking are also dotted around the garden in the image understood to have been taken on Friday May 15, 2020.
Earlier that day, then health secretary Matt Hancock, had urged people in a Covid press briefing to “stay at home as much as is possible” despite the good weather.
Rules at the time allowed only two people from different households to meet outside in a socially distanced manner - but Mr Raab insisted the PM did not break his own Covid laws and all staff were following them on the day in question.
The deputy PM insisted it was a "work meeting" and the Downing Street garden "was used to conduct business throughout the difficult conditions of the pandemic...
“Those meetings were held in the garden and occasionally there was drink there as well.”
"Have you ever had cheese and wine at a meeting in No 10?"
“Not that I can recall.”
However, Mr Raab acknowledged that the prime minister's wife was not a member of staff, and when asked by ITV News if she was regularly part of work meetings, he replied: “No, not in my experience.”
He continued: “I think during a busy day, after a busy week - they’ve just had a No 10 press conference, meetings taking place throughout the day, and occasionally there was wine and Carrie popped in to check in on the prime minister.
“I think it’s frankly a bit uncharitable for people to think that a wife wouldn’t do that in relation to her husband in the conditions and under the pressure that we’re describing.”
When asked if cheese and wine was a regular feature of No 10 business meetings, Mr Raab said he hasn’t worked “quite in the conditions that the prime minister does and he’s in the rare position of working in the same place as he lives”.
ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen asked: "Have you ever had cheese and wine at a meeting in No 10?"
“Not that I can recall,” replied Mr Raab.
Sources told the Guardian and Independent earlier this week the prime minister spent about 15 minutes at the gathering and told one staff member they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus.
They claimed about 20 staff drank wine and spirits and ate pizza after a Covid briefing. Some were in the office and some were in the garden and some stayed drinking until late, it is alleged.
Downing Street claimed the May 15 gathering was a work meeting and that Mr Johnson went back to his flat at 7pm.
The prime minister's spokesperson said on Thursday: “In the summer months, Downing Street staff regularly use the garden for some meetings.
"On 15 May 2020, the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference.
“The prime minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.”
The latest photo comes after a leaked video, obtained by ITV News, showed senior Downing Street staff joking about a December 18 No 10 "cheese and wine" party - days after it's alleged to have taken place
Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, reacted to the photo: "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."
Mr Johnson's government has been engulfed in a series of party scandals - accusations that the prime minister, politicians and civil servants flouted Covid restrictions with social gatherings while preaching to members of the public to follow rules.
Earlier this month, ITV News released leaked footage of senior staff laughing about a Christmas party in Number 10, alleged to have happened on December 18.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who had been tasked with leading the investigation, was then hit by accusations that his department's office held its own gathering for a partially virtual quiz on December 17 last year.