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How powerful is Carrie Johnson? The public should know more about the PM's wife

Is the PM terrified of his wife? Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images


March 17, 2022   6 mins

Boris Johnson was not universally admired in the Foreign Office, when he headed it. In late 2017, his allies there suggested he would benefit from having a chief of staff. “This suggestion seemed to fall on deaf ears”, writes Michael Ashcroft in his latest political biography. Then, in early 2018, Johnson became keener on the plan, saying he had just the right candidate in mind. But his allies were “aghast”; Johnson’s choice was quite unsuitable, lacking the heft for the role. “Everyone advised him not to do it. They told him she had been over-promoted and that making her his chief of staff was ridiculous”, says a source close to the episode.

The candidate was Carrie Symonds. Unknown to his advisers, Johnson had become close to her, and around this time, one friendly MP walked in on the pair in “a compromising situation” in his House of Commons office. Undaunted and unembarrassed, Johnson persisted with the idea of making Carrie head of staff, calling in Zac Goldsmith to offer support. Only after a (named) aide threatened to resign did Johnson drop it.

If ever a book invited lazy thinking from journalists, then First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson is it. We know what 76-year-old Ashcroft thinks about a lot of things, so it is easy to assume that the billionaire won’t be a fan of Carrie, who is very much a modern, liberal, green Tory (though they share an interest in animal welfare). The book on David Cameron that appeared under his and Isabel Oakeshott’s name, though very readable, was a piece of score-settling by a man who felt his beneficence to the Party had gone under-appreciated.

He remains something of an outsider so, one might think, this new title is presumably another piece of axe-grinding. Plus, given that many of the juicy bits have already appeared in the newspaper serialisation, why bother with the book itself? And evidently some will object to the imbalance of an idiosyncratic rich man examining the life of a woman half his age. One reviewer became “absolutely furious” at Ashcroft referring to Carrie, then 31, as a “young lady” in the introduction; for her, the narrative never recovered.

There are parts that made me squeamish, and certainly some of the anecdotes from her early years feel slightly invasive, inevitably in a biography of this type. But to disqualify Ashcroft because of an imputed attitude to women is short-sighted. And to say his book is a misogynistic hit job just isn’t good enough.

The days when he would use his wealth to elevate him above libel laws and ventilate nonsense about David Cameron putting his penis in a dead pig’s mouth, or his wife having an affair with one of her security people, seem to be behind him. (Francis Elliott and I checked the latter rumour when co-writing the first biography of Cameron and established it was untrue, but it was still doing the rounds seven years later and Ashcroft and Oakeshott reported it as gossip.)

And the result of Ashcroft’s, shall we say, maturing as a political biographer should not be ignored.1 Can anyone seriously claim that the story of a Foreign Secretary trying to sign up his new girlfriend for a job for which she is not qualified is not in the public interest? Or that the story is made up? There are too many sources for the book to be dismissed as a hatchet job. True, many remain unnamed, but that should deter no one. It would be naïve to expect otherwise with so fevered a government still in power. So unless Ashcroft has invented them, which is pretty much inconceivable, there is plenty in this volume that deserves to be taken seriously.

The picture that emerges is of someone with more strong opinions than her husband, but no less unhappiness in early life or, later, determination to achieve her goals. Her commitment to green issues, admirable to my mind, is a constant thread. Ashcroft applauds her bravery in waiving anonymity in the case of sex criminal John Worboys, who drugged her in the back of a taxi, her campaign against his release from prison and her willingness to discuss her 2021 miscarriage. He cites her charm, what fun she can be and ability to get on with influential journalists, which is indispensable in PR.

Her early life, financially comfortable rather than lavish, makes for sad reading. She is distant from her father, a journalist called Matthew Symonds, who had another family. The product of an extra-marital affair, she attended two top private schools in London and was brought up as an only child by her mother, Josephine McAfee. She studied drama at Warwick University, spent time in PR and then, after meeting Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party, began working for Zac and subsequently for the Conservative Party. She became a special adviser to John Whittingdale and then Sajid Javid before, at 29, becoming the Tories’ communications director.

But in Westminster she is not universally liked. We know something of this from Dominic Cummings, never one for deft understatement, but the evidence compiled here goes well beyond any campaign he could have organised. Her shortcomings as a colleague are rehearsed at some length (one colleague on the campaign trail called her “utterly, utterly useless”), as is her lack of interest in policy and her enthusiasm for holidays and smart restaurants. She once described the job of being Tatler’s political editor as her dream job.

There are numerous stories of Carrie being hard to work with and of her desire to get on (no more a crime in a woman than a man, of course). She even has her very own expenses scandal, in which she used the names of junior colleagues when claiming taxis. One source said: “She’s lucky she didn’t end up in more serious trouble… It was misuse of CCHQ funds. She used the names of those just starting out on their careers. That was unforgivable”. Whether the cabs were for her private use, or to meet one of the two married Tory MPs (one was Johnson, the other for some reason remains unnamed) with whom she had a relationship, we may never know.

Normally personality traits in a Prime Minister’s spouse would matter only to the PM, but according to Ashcroft this one seeks to involve herself in areas where she is under-qualified and insert her allies into positions of influence. She appears to have been largely responsible for Allegra Stratton’s ill-fated hiring, for instance. Carrie is also portrayed as remarkably thin-skinned where media criticism is concerned, especially for someone so familiar with the transience of the news trade; the PM apparently spends inordinate amounts of time smoothing her ruffled feathers.

Carrie’s defenders will point to the sacking of John Whittingdale and Henry Newman, two of her supporters, as evidence of her lack of influence. But that seems to have been the result of one of the PM’s knee-jerk responses to criticism, following Lord Frost’s public suggestion that he refresh things by removing the woke crowd. Clearly, there is a body of opinion that disdains the greenery-by-stealth approach that she embodies (and which a braver PM would embrace). Either way, Carrie is scarcely the “private individual who plays no role in Government” that her spokesperson claims.

And there is plenty of evidence that Johnson, who hates confrontation, went to extraordinary lengths to avoid rousing his wife’s temper. He would beg aides to help him keep her happy, at one point asking if someone could be given a job title without actually doing the job, just so it looked as if that person performed that role. Was this another Boris joke? Conceivably, but that can’t excuse everything.

Those who know Johnson well know him to be an organisational disaster. (I’m told his diplomatic protection team often have to remind him to do up his flies.) The expert in mitigating his chaos used to be his former wife Marina. Carrie, perhaps because she is of a more recent generation than Marina, apparently sees no reason why she should mother her husband. As one of Ashcroft’s sources says: “When the marriage [with Marina] ended, he lost his domestic support, the steadying influence, and he traded that in for a demanding girlfriend and strong disapproval from his children”. Even Prime Ministers are entitled to private lives, but are we really to believe these details have no effect on how the country is run?

Without the research that went into First Lady, we would be guessing — trying to join the dots between Cummings blogs, drip-drip news of Covid parties, flat refurbishments and Johnson’s pinball machine decision-making. What the book lacks, though, is the case for the defence. There are few voices supporting her, beyond that of her former boss John Whittingdale. Carrie refused to cooperate with the book, sticking to the “not a public person” line, when even her much-admired Tatler calls her “the most powerful woman in Britain”. Perhaps if she had engaged, or encouraged friends to engage, she could have neutralised the accusations and conveyed a more favourable impression of herself.

Nevertheless, this book offers an account of where Carrie came from, what she wants, what makes her tick and, most important, the influence she has on our PM.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  I helped in an indirect and minor way with research for his book on Jacob Rees-Mogg.

James Hanningis co-author of the first biography of David Cameron. His book Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut is out in paperback on 7th April.

GJamesHanning

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Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
2 years ago

I don’t much care about her. Or about him for that matter. But I do do care passionately about the quality of my prime minister. Ukraine has rather obscured how incompetent he is.

Before Putin saved him, he looked like a teenager who’d thrown a party whilst his parents had gone away, but lacked the basic domestic skills to clean up before they returned. This piece reminds us that he’s still profoundly incompetent and we’re still stuck with him. For pity sake where did all the grownups go?

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago
Reply to  Howard Clegg

I wonder if we will ever find out whether he lied to parliament or broke his own laws over the parties in Downing Street.

Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

Rob.. There’s not much of a grey area left, surely? If you say that something you did/something that happened/ was in your opinion not against the law and a ruling is subsequently made against that opinion, that is not “a lie”. It’s just a way we conduct civilised life. I’m constantly amazed at the way we so often allow partisan spin to suspend our sense of proportion.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

I’m sure they’d love for that report to slip quietly out on a wet Friday afternoon, when Putin has done something even more awful in Ukraine. I suspect it will eventually appear in some feeble form after the Met have found a new Commissioner. Will it hold anyone to account? I seriously doubt it with this mob.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“She even has her very own expenses scandal, in which she used the names of junior colleagues when claiming taxis.”
This might be the most wretched part of this for me. What a vicious person.

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
2 years ago

She studied drama at Warwick University, spent time in PR and then, after meeting Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party, began working for Zac and subsequently for the Conservative Party. She became a special adviser to John Whittingdale and then Sajid Javid before, at 29, becoming the Tories’ communications director.

She met Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party and then began working for him? What? How did that happen?
Drama and PR, eh? Just the sort of person we want influencing policy at the highest level with absolutely no mandate whatsoever. Boris is a fool and the whole Tory Party is rife with this nepotistic crap. The results are plainly visible in his wreckage of a government.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

Just remember, no-one knows the name of the other married Tory MP with whom she had an affair.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

Sounds like you have to know diddly squat to be an ‘advisor’, never mind a communications director.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Just give very good BJs.

Stephen Bowman-Finch
Stephen Bowman-Finch
1 year ago

She has brought the communication profession into disrepute. As a comms director, you sometimes have to hold your boss to account (I know I’ve had to in some roles); you can’t do that objectively if you’re having an affair with them. They are both squalid, awful people.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

“She met Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party and then began working for him? What? How did that happen?”
Clearly, she slept her way to the top!

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
2 years ago

It’s less specifically about Carrie herself and more what she represents. At every level of Government, both National and Local, you find these complete no-hopers who are elevated into positions they should never have been in. I’ve known many Carrie’s and, though unfashionable to say, they almost always use their looks/girlish charm/sexual advances to get their way.
The fact that Cummings was the one forced out of No.10 over Carrie rather than a near-revolt at her elevation by Johnson just shows how entrenched the “Carries” are at every level of society currently. She’s yet another glaring symptom of an elite which is bursting at the seams with incompetency.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

Her ilk bring to mind Is 3:4. We have stumbled upon the government we deserve: weak, incompetent popinjays, ignorant of the priorities of governance and ignorant of their own ignorance.

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
2 years ago

She is responsible for Boris’ abject failure to promote conservative values and, in particular, to stand up against the pernicious wokery of critical gender and race theory that is destabilising our society. Small wonder Putin reckons we are a basket case.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Lewis

But what are Tory values today? We have Tory MP Crispin Blunt reprimanding another female Tory Councillor for standing up for Women’s rights against the pervasive Trans community Blunt promotes. Where was the Tory Party when these pair of Clowns in No 10 set about deconstructing it? Cumming’s was the best chance to depoliticise the whole Westminster blob that thwart the Tories and Boris cowered to his wife to get rid of him. Both are now a liability and Boris should step down for someone to make the hard decisions

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

Cummings tried to answer this question (for good or ill) and was forced out by Queen Carrie for his troubles. The malaise the Modern British State finds itself in is quite severe.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Another standard Heome ceounties faux sloane Guildfordoid/ similar, with the guile of a vixen and an ability to mesmerise certain types of vain insecure men…

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

‘She studied drama at Warwick University, spent time in PR and then, after meeting Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party, began working for Zac and subsequently for the Conservative Party.’ So, completely qualified to lead Britain on a Net Zero crusade. I can only hope that when the history of Britain in the 21st century comes to be written, those writing it will not die from over-much hilarity. The idea that a country of 75 million people would be dictated to by a posh bint with a drama degree to the point of driving it off a ‘green’ cliff is too silly for a Monty Python skit.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Having an unfortunate and/or unhappy childhood does not give the right to grabbing all you want when you are an adult. It seems that, like her husband, she does not understand the difference between power and authority.
They both seem to exist in a moral vacuum as one of the MPs who sent a letter of no confidence wrote.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago

She’s not even that pretty.

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Not very gentlemanly Mike.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Utterly irrelevant!

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

I disagree. Boris has married her and probably not for her brain or her political values. And she now appears to be setting policy. So her looks are not “utterly irrelevant”.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Yet she traded on her ‘prettiness’, so it is particularly relevant. She didn’t get there through honest endeavour it seems. Then to add insult to injury, she isn’t pretty. Beyond the very lovely hair she is not ‘pretty’ imo.

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
2 years ago

An interesting piece by Hanning.

But I note “Her commitment to green issues, admirable to my mind, is a constant thread.”

Unfortunately, in reality, her GangGreen enthusiasms are the very worst aspect of the woman.

Leaving on one side the extremely contested notion that CO2 drives the climate to any appreciable extent, she obviously has absolutely no notion of energy policy and has reinforced the ignorant and ridiculous opinions of Goldsmith and Stanley Johnson in Boris’s brain (to be found, apparently, residing at leisure in his bellend).

I keep pointing out that the implications of the Zero Carbon scam will make the Zero Covid scam look like a vicarage tea party.

The present energy problems are only a minor portent of what will follow.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

The Brits seem to have become very much like the French.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

In all the wrong ways!

Kat L
Kat L
2 years ago

Well she’s probably making him miserable so there is that
on the other hand he may be like prince handbag Harry and remain unaware of it


D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

There was a great critique of Michael Ashcroft’s (? Tory party chairman) recent book on TCW which went into this. Very Interesting.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

The suggestion that any politician, any MP, should act totally independently of their partner is ludicrous. Partners have to live with each other after all and each vet the other’s moral compass. I would expect a politician to run ideas by their partner, to solicit their input, and modify to some extent the position on issues. I also expect that a politician would rarely, if ever, adopt a position to which their partner is vigorously opposed. When we elect a politician to office we have to expect that the politician and their partner come as a pair, not totally independent, isolated individuals.
With regard to Boris and Carrie, unless Carrie has Boris under coercive control his position on issues must be in agreement, or at the very least sympathetic to those of Carrie.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago
Reply to  William Shaw

You cannot have the tarts in charge of the pastry shop.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

That’s not very nice.

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
2 years ago

Indeed so. Not what I expect at Unherd.