Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to explain a meeting with Sue Gray before her report into lockdown breaches in Downing Street, after a cabinet minister declined to deny he had queried whether it should be published.
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 Johnson 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 a meeting with Gray before her report had been called at the prime minister’s request, despite ministers saying the opposite in morning interviews.
The Times reported that during the meeting Johnson had questioned whether the report should be published, given most of the information was already in the public domain.
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Grant Shapps did not deny reports 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. Attendees said Johnson stayed for up to 25 minutes.
The Guardian understands the police had been 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 had not fined Johnson for the event – and said there were questions over whether he 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.”