Boris Johnson appears to have broken Covid laws, Keir Starmer has said after a picture emerged of the prime minister hosting a quiz for Downing Street staff last Christmas.
The Labour leader, who is also a former director of public prosecutions, said it was a “very serious” revelation and “hard to see” how Johnson’s attendance in a room with aides pictured wearing tinsel and a Santa hat was “compliant with the rules”.
However, the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, dismissed the leaked photo, suggesting he thought it showed the reports of parties held in No 10 in defiance of lockdown and tier restrictions were overhyped.
Not all Tory MPs were convinced, though. Steve Baker, a senior Conservative backbencher, said despite assurances from Johnson that no social gatherings were held last year by senior government advisers, it was “pretty obvious now that hasn’t happened”.
Amid waning support from Tory MPs and in public opinion polls, the image that will put further pressure on Johnson shows him sitting with staff while not social distancing on 15 December 2020.
According to the Sunday Mirror, he joined the quiz halfway through and hosted one of the rounds, thanking staff for their work during the pandemic.
While Johnson presented the quiz virtually, No 10 staff reportedly huddled around computers to confer on answers and drank wine and beer.
London was in tier 2 at the time, meaning that while working together was permitted, mixing between households for social reasons was banned, including Christmas events.
Asked if he thought Johnson had broken the law, Starmer told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “It looks as though he was. He must have known that other groups were in other rooms in his own building.
“This is very important because he has damaged his authority. He is now so weak, his party is so divided – he can’t deliver the leadership this country needs.
“We’ve got a very important vote coming up next week and he can’t even discharge the basic functions of government. He is the worst possible leader at the worst possible time.”
Zahawi said Starmer was wrong and accused him of “being political” in his criticism of the prime minister. The education secretary said reported parties in Downing Street and the Department for Education last Christmas would “quite rightly” be investigated by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case.
But he added: “My email box is full of people thinking that he was sort of at parties with guests and all sorts of things happening. Actually, they can now make their mind up when they see this picture of the prime minister on a virtual screen, on a Zoom call thanking his team, who are in the building because they have to respond to a national emergency.”
But Baker, who is relaunching the pressure group Conservative Way Forward in the new year, said the government needed to comply with both the letter and spirit of the restrictions politicians had imposed on the public.
He accused ministers of “creating a miserable dystopia” and warned the Conservatives would “continue to drift into authoritarianism” if further curbs were announced in the run-up to this Christmas.