The Prime Minister may resent gossip, but it is his closest political friend. He came to power on wings of gossip: of fascination with his character. If you look for the political core in Boris Johnson, it is not there. There is only hunger, a collection of instincts. Johnsonism is an ever-receding fantasy, the life’s work — the morning’s work? — of the people’s narcissist.
It is natural, then, to be interested in Carrie Johnson, his third wife. If political writing tends to obsess on his character, she is interesting because without her he is only half a novel. She illuminates him. I could tell you some gossip, but gossip is a drug. Read it and you want nothing else. She likewise resents gossip. She was formerly director of communications for the Conservative Party and in spirit, if not title, she still is.
American journalism is mostly immune to the tactic of charm plus threats. And so last week, a profile in Harper’s magazine revealed that Carrie’s Johnson’s friend, the feminist activist Nimco Ali, spent Christmas with the family. If the arrangement was part of a childcare bubble, which has been reported, it was legal, and Downing Street said no rules were broken. It is hard to believe, though, that two functioning parents need childcare on Christmas Day, unless they are both working: were they? But the courtier journalists paid court. The Johnsons were exonerated and the essential, eternal meaning of the story — one rule for us, one for you — was not dwelt on.
Even so, to criticise Carrie Johnson without criticising her husband is unfair, and it is misogyny when the phrase Carrie Antoinette is trending, or when she is called Lady Macbeth by Kay Burley of Sky. This is the usual shrapnel around Boris Johnson; his wife is not the first person to take a bullet for him. Rather, he enables her in everything. He is an emotionally isolated man with few personal friends and, now the Vote Leave contingent has gone, few political friends. She wields vast and unaccountable political power in the old-fashioned way that women do: through him.
She is a clue to the mystery of Johnsonism, which is developing to be, besides fantastical and thrown together — like his journalism? — lazily and instinctively corrupt. There is the Christmas Day example: unless you believe that both Johnsons worked on Christmas Day, which I don’t. There is the golden wallpaper incident in the spring. The flat above No.11 was redecorated after the election for their use. We heard that the Conservative Party paid for it; then that a private donor paid for some of it; then that a trust was going to pay for it; then that Johnson, rebuked by the Electoral Commission, paid for it himself. He denies any wrongdoing. But for a prime minister to accept golden wallpaper or expect party members to pay for golden wallpaper is insane unless you see the premiership as an ongoing press trip in which everything is free.
Harper’s describes an informal culture of meetings and decisions via WhatsApp, her reluctance to have an official office which would provide a record of her actions and her use of courtier journalists as a mouthpiece. An fear of accountability is another feature of Johnsonism. It is dramatic. It is not transparent.
Together they work together to create the parallel universe that is the heart (I joke) of Johnsonism. The country sees one thing, and he tells us we see something else. At Conference he said things which are untrue, or at least so partially true as to be lies. Wages are not rising faster than pre Covid. We are not the number one destination for direct foreign investment. Capitalism did not make the vaccine. Brexit did not enable us to reject the European Super League and establish free ports. Labour did not decide to oppose step four of the roadmap to keep the UK in lockdown. This is a collection of dreams. It is marketing. His whole career is marketing. And so is hers.
For instance, he is a feminist now. Nimco Ali said so. She called him a “true feminist”. But is he? Is his wife? Her feminism – the entitled kind that forbids criticism if the person criticised is female — is short on action for childcare and equal pay, though she is very keen on elephants, some of whom are female. Rather, she walks the waves of Carbis Bay in a red dress with a lovely child, demonstrating his fecundity, and rendering him ageless.
His feminism is as reactionary, but it is more cynical. He celebrates International Women’s Day but cuts the foreign aid budget and will not properly fund women’s shelters. (Women’s Aid estimate that the funding shortfall is now more than £200 million but he would tell you something else. God knows what he would tell you.) Instead, he says things like this at Conference: “That is what the people of our countries want us to focus on. Building back greener, and building back fairer, and building back more equal, and, how shall I . . . in a more gender-neutral and perhaps a more feminine way.” I think he came quite close to calling women flowers. But he is called a feminist, and so he must be a feminist. We will see similar campaigns on the environment and race, and they will be as dazzling.
Her friends are correct in one thing, as the stopped clock is right twice a day. Mrs Johnson is not the power behind the shabby throne; she cannot be Lady Macbeth when married to so calculating a man. I wonder if, for now, she is closer to a naïve supporter: to Banquo.