Critics have accused Boris Johnson and his girlfriend of appearing in an “obviously staged” photo as questions mount over their relationship.
An image emerged today of the top Tory, 55, and 31-year-old Carrie Symonds holding hands at a secluded garden table – two days after police were called to reports of a domestic row at her flat.
The snap in long grass somewhere in Sussex was revealed by MailOnline, which quoted a friend as saying: “They love each other very much and want to get married as soon as the time is right.
“Boris only has eyes for Carrie and she is totally smitten with him.”
But the pair face questions from politicians and celebrities over how, where and why the photo was taken.
More than six hours after it was published, no freelance photographers or picture agencies have stepped forward to claim they took the photo.
A source close to Mr Johnson insisted the photo was not “set up” by Mr Johnson’s press team, telling the Mirror: “It wasn’t organised by the campaign.”
But the source was unable to say whether the couple knew the photo was being taken.
And speaking to the Daily Telegraph, one ally of Mr Johnson appeared to suggest allies of Ms Symonds – the Tory Party’s former chief spin doctor – could be responsible for the photo.
“Boris definitely didn’t arrange for these pictures to be taken,” they told the newspaper. “If they were staged, there is only one other person who it could be.”
Labour MP Jo Stevens, who sits on the Commons media committee, said the photo was “obviously staged” and made Mr Johnson look “even more shifty”.
She told the Mirror: ” Boris Johnson never usually shies away from making his own often offensive and sometimes racist views known.
“When you’re attempting to become the Prime Minister, hiding from legitimate questions about your behaviour, is not a good look.
“The obviously staged “paparazzi” photo released after days of refusing to explain himself just makes him look even more shifty.
“He’s a stranger to telling the truth. His record on that is well known. He’s not fit to hold the office of UK Prime Minister.”
Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, who now presents ITV’s Good Morning Britain, also suggested the photos were staged.
He tweeted: “Boris invades his own privacy to use girlfriend as campaign promotional tool.”
Calls are mounting for Mr Johnson to explain why police were called to the flat he shares with Ms Symonds in the early hours of Friday.
Neighbour Tom Penn recorded the incident and dialled 999 in the early hours of Friday after he heard “a loud scream and banging, followed by silence.”
He then handed a tape of the incident to the Guardian newspaper – prompting a furious backlash from Boris Johnson supporters.
Domestic violence charities issued a joint statement saying neighbours were right to report concerns to police.
And rival Jeremy Hunt branded Mr Johnson a “coward” for ducking questions overall, saying he should answer questions on anything.
Yet Boris Johnson backer Priti Patel branded the row a “politically motivated attack” and compared the recording of the argument, which could be heard in the street outside, to the Stasi.
Meanwhile allies of the pair claimed they’d had their privacy invaded and been driven out of her south London flat – where Class War activists turned up yesterday.
Boris Johnson has a history of being accused of staged photos.
In October he was filmed going for a morning jog through what resembled a field of wheat – after Theresa May described that act as the naughtiest thing she’d ever done.
And the Tory MP invited in a professional photographer to capture the moment he signed his resignation letter as Foreign Secretary.
Critics called on him to explain the latest photo to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith tweeted: “Either this was taken and published with his knowledge, in which case all the stuff about his private life being private is cant and hypocrisy, or he’ll be taking action against your paper and the photographer.
“I will watch with interest.”
And comedian David Baddiel said: “I think we need to know the politics of the photographer who took this secret pic and handed it secretly to the newspaper.”
Mr Johnson refused five times to explain the row on Saturday, while friends claimed the pair had four rows in three weeks and that Mr Johnson still wants to get back with wife Marina Wheeler.
But Ms Symonds’ friend Nimco Ali told the Evening Standard today: “Boris and Carrie are very loved up. They don’t deserve this from creepy neighbours. People in love row once in a while.
“So what, they are human. If anything I think this whole thing has brought them even closer together.”
Despite the row Mr Johnson is still the runaway favourite to beat Jeremy Hunt in a vote by 160,000 Tory members and become Prime Minister on July 24.
But his victory could be short-lived as Tory whips brace for Labour to bring a no confidence vote in the government.
And Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood warned 12 Conservative MPs could do the same.