Downing Street has denied that Boris Johnson asked Sue Gray outright to ditch her report on lockdown breaches in Downing Street, insisting the pair only discussed “process” at a recent meeting.
Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “The prime minister did not ask her to drop the report or not proceed with the report. The prime minister commissioned the report. He wants the report to be published.”
The spokesperson described the meeting between the pair – which No 10 conceded on Monday was initiated by Downing Street – as “a legitimate meeting about process”.
However, he was unable to say firmly whether Johnson may have wondered aloud whether Gray should go ahead with publication in light of the Met investigation. “I don’t recognise that characterisation,” the spokesperson said, adding: “I’m not going to be getting into line by line what may or may not have been said.”
The Times reported that Johnson questioned whether Gray’s report should be published, given most of the information was already in the public domain.
The report, which is expected to be handed to No 10 on Wednesday, is said by sources to be deeply critical of the prime minister and senior civil service leadership over the culture that developed in No 10 and eventually led the Metropolitan police to issue 126 fines.
Further pressure was heaped on Johnson on Monday night after a photo was released showing him raising a glass at a leaving do in No 10 – an event for which others were fined but not the prime minister.
No 10 admitted on Monday that the meeting with Gray before her report was called at the prime minister’s request, despite ministers having said the opposite in morning interviews.
On Tuesday, the cabinet minister Grant Shapps did not deny that Johnson had questioned whether it was worth publishing the report at all. He said: “I wasn’t in the room so I don’t know that’s the case. Exactly what was discussed, I don’t know.
“Occasionally things get reported that are not entirely accurate. The civil service were there to make sure that all the correct processes were followed, so I have no particular reason for concern about the two of them meeting.”
Shapps, the transport secretary, said he thought the pictures obtained by ITV News did not change what the public already knew about the gathering. “I don’t think the fact of the pictures, us seeing them for the first time, changes what the police and Sue Gray already know.
“I see his red box is there, which is his work box, it looks to me like he goes down on his way out of the office and thanks the staff and raises a glass, and doesn’t in his mind recognise it as a party. And indeed the police have looked into this and spent a lot of time and resources.”
However, those present say that it was instigated by Johnson, who gathered staff around, poured drinks and made a speech for his departing head of communications, Lee Cain – though staff in the press office already had regular Friday wine. Attenders said Johnson stayed for up to 25 minutes.
An unnamed witness to the event told the BBC’s Panorama: “There were about 30 people, if not more, in a room. Everyone was stood shoulder to shoulder, some people on each other’s laps … one or two people.”
The Guardian understands the police were handed details of the leaving drinks and the circumstances of Johnson’s attendance.
Shapps said he could not deny the pictures were “very difficult to look at” but said Johnson had “popped down there to raise a glass and say thank you to a long-term member of staff who is leaving”.
He added: “I couldn’t see my own dad for four months during this period because he was in hospital and we thought we’d lost him at one point.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the police should explain why they did not fine Johnson for the event, and said there were questions over whether the prime minister had misled parliament.
“I saw the photograph of Boris Johnson raising a glass, clearly bottles of wine laying around, others with wine in their hand, on a day when he said in the House of Commons, and I speak as a former parliamentarian and I know the importance of not lying or misleading in the House of Commons, that there wasn’t a party,” he said.
“Sue Gray will publish her report this week and of course the prime minister will have to answer for himself, but I think the police should explain why they reached their conclusions and provide that clarity.”