Civil servant dubbed ‘Party Marty’ admits WhatsApp messages in Johnson group chat were ‘set to disappear’

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 heard.

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.”

Politics latest: Key figures under Boris Johnson giving evidence to COVID inquiry

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 Dominic Cummings, Number 10’s former chief adviser, tomorrow.

The inquiry’s module two hearings are considering core UK decision-making and political governance.

Mr Reynolds’ evidence session opened with a focus on how messages were sent and recorded in government during the pandemic.

Johnson ‘mad’ if he didn’t realise messages would be made public

There has been criticism that key decision making may have been made over WhatsApp and not through the normal processes – raising questions around accountability in cases where messages can’t be accessed by the inquiry.

The inquiry heard on Monday that Mr Johnson may not have realised his messages would eventually become public.

In correspondence shared with the inquiry from December 2021, 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.”

Mr Reynolds was also questioned about the power dynamics in Number 10 in January and February 2020, just before the pandemic broke out.

He described Dominic Cummings – once Mr Johnson’s ally and now his adversary – as the “most empowered chief of staff Downing Street had ever seen”.

Asked if the Cabinet Office was incapable of managing a crisis, he said: “I do think there are many things that could have been done differently. It didn’t have the plans and processes in place to move from the early stage through to the crisis stage.”