Monday 30 October 2023
LONDON: COVID inquiry: Senior civil servant Martin Reynolds admits WhatsApp messages in Boris Johnson group chat were ‘set to disappear’
Martin Reynolds, who sent the BYOB email to Downing Street staff during lockdown, is facing questions about how WhatsApps were sent and recorded in government during the pandemic.
By Democrat reporter
A senior civil servant during the pandemic admitted setting WhatsApp messages to “disappear” as calls for a COVID inquiry grew – but said he can’t remember why.
Martin Reynolds, who was Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, turned on a “disappearing message function” on a group chat titled “PM Updates” on 15 April 2021, the COVID inquiry has been told.
Asked by barrister Hugo Keith KC why he did this, he said he can “guess” and “speculate” but he “cannot recall exactly why I did so”.
He added: “It could, for example, have been because I was worried of someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them.”
Mr Reynold’s evidence session also heard:
- Boris Johnson held a meeting with Russian media mogul Lord Lebedev during the height of the pandemic;
- The former prime minister “blew hot and cold” on vital issues;
- The former chief adviser to Downing Street, Dominic Cummings, was the “most empowered chief of staff ever seen”;
- Mr Johnson was described as “mad” for thinking his WhatsApp messages would not be made public;
- The UK’s top civil servant Simon Case described being “at the end of my tether” at Mr Johnson “changing strategic direction” before the nation went into lockdown, while Mr Cummings agreed saying he was getting “despairing” messages from people in meetings with him;
- At meetings women were “talked over” and there was “significant misogyny” on display;
- Mr Reynolds apologised “unreservedly” for sending a BYOB invite during the first lockdown
Downing Street said the use of disappearing WhatsApp messages “is permitted as civil servants and ministerial private offices are required to record and log official decisions for the official record”.
There has been criticism that major decision-making during the pandemic may have been made over WhatsApp and not through the normal processes, raising questions about accountability in cases where messages can’t be accessed by the inquiry.
Johnson ‘hadn’t realised WhatsApps would become public’
Elsewhere in the session, Mr Reynolds suggested Mr Johnson may not have realised his messages would eventually become public.
As part of the evidence on Monday, an exchange was shared from December 2021 in which the head of the civil service, Simon Case, said: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”
Mr Reynolds responded: “Agreed – thanks for your help.”
Pressed on the meaning behind “battle”, Mr Reynolds told the inquiry he could not remember.
But he added: “I imagine that the prime minster – I’m afraid I can only speculate – but I imagine he hadn’t realised that all of his WhatApps would become public via the Covid inquiry.”
Cummings ‘most empowered chief of staff ever seen’
A number of disparaging messages about Mr Johnson were read out at the inquiry, including Mr Case saying the then prime minister “cannot lead” and was making things impossible.
Mr Reynolds was also questioned about the power dynamics in Number 10 in January and February 2020, just before the pandemic broke out.
He said there had been an “unusual dynamic” under Mr Cummings – Mr Johnson’s ally turned adversary – and described him as the “most empowered chief of staff Downing Street had ever seen”.
It was also revealed the former prime minister had a phone call with and met Russian media mogul Lord Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and a shareholder in The Independent, on 18 and 19 March 2020.
Mr Reynolds said he was not present and did not know what the meeting was about. He said he “could not recall” if he asked Mr Johnson why he was spending his time on that rather than the “urgent” matter of coronavirus, which was rapidly spreading through Europe.
He told the inquiry: “Ultimately it is for the prime minister to decide his use of time and if he decided that was important, it’s for him to decide.
“I may have said ‘are you sure you want to do this’ or indeed others may have done the same.”
Johnson ‘blew hot and cold’
On Mr Johnson’s leadership style, Mr Reynolds admitted he “did blow hot and cold on some issues”.
It was put to him that when the former prime minister returned after he was hospitalised with COVID, messages showed he “oscillated in terms of what should be done, he wondered whether he should be regarded as the ‘mayor in the Jaws film’ – shutting the beaches”.
Mr Reyonlds added: “Then, within hours or days, he would take a contrary position.”
Asked if it was something he noticed, as others have done, Mr Reynolds responded: “I think it’s fair to say the prime minister did, as it were, blow hot and cold on some issues.”
Asked if that included the “most vital issues which his government faced”, Mr Reynolds said: “Yes, but also the most difficult choices the country was facing – both of which had very difficult consequences.”
Mr Reynolds was infamously nicknamed “Party Marty” after writing a notorious “bring your own booze” email to Downing Street staff during the first lockdown.
He is the first of several senior Downing Street officials giving evidence to the COVID inquiry this week, followed by former director of communications Lee Cain this afternoon and Mr Cummings tomorrow.