She’s a devil, she’s an angel: she’s a pushy and whimsical ‘Princess Nut Nut’ or a steadfast friend who has long campaigned for animal welfare and feminist causes, reviving the faltering modernisation of British Conservatism. She’s modest and keeps out of the limelight – standing alongside staffers rather than in front of the glossy black door of No 10 when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street after his December 2019 election victory – or she’s a siren in a high-stakes Game of Thrones, dubbed Cersei after the glamorous villainess, whip-cracking her way through Westminster and driving out loyalists.
Carrie’s War is raging in and around No 10, with the prime minister’s fiancée and mother of his baby son in the firing line. ‘It’s a shitshow,’ is the tart summary one confidant of the Johnson clan gives. ‘She’s an Anne Boleyn who gets her power by proxy. The result is a nightmare for everyone else involved.’
A concerted fightback is, however, under way in defence of the First Fiancée – herself a seasoned political communications expert with a network that reaches across Westminster and deep into the Conservative Party. ‘She is very unfairly treated,’ says John Whittingdale, whom Symonds worked for as a special adviser, or ‘spad’, from 2015, when he was culture secretary. ‘Carrie is tough and loyal, and has brilliant instincts. No wonder Boris trusts her.’ Nimco Ali, the women’s rights campaigner and confidante of Carrie, breaks her customary silence about her friend to tell me: ‘She’s fun and kind, and she wants the world to be a better and a safer place for women. Can someone tell me what’s wrong with that?’
At 32, Carrie Symonds is set to become Johnson’s third wife – just as soon as big weddings are allowed again, say those close to the couple. Now firmly established as the chatelaine of No 10, she stands for a millennial generation in Tory politics that is trying to wrest power from Gen Xers who have been ruling the roost for the past decade – as well as from a slightly older crew of Johnson allies from his days as London mayor.
As a former Conservative Party press officer, spad to ministers including Sajid Javid, and (briefly) head of communications for the party in 2017, Symonds has a tight circle of friends who see her as a razor-sharp political operative in her own right. Perhaps her greatest recent triumph is the ousting of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s one-time right-hand man and a Symonds sceptic. Admirers also maintain that Symonds is responsible for sharpening Johnson’s focus and for driving him into the top job in the summer of 2019. ‘She’s discreet, organised and a much more steadfast creature of the party than he is,’ says a senior cabinet minister. He credits Symonds, a long-standing eco-activist, with the ‘greening’ of the PM. In environmental matters, Johnson now has the ‘zeal of a convert’, he tells me. ‘After a period of being unenthusiastic, it’s right at the heart of his government – and a lot of that is down to Carrie’s advocacy.’
Having written about PMs’ other halves since Cherie Blair blearily answered the door in her nightie the morning after the 1997 Labour landslide, I can vouch that the role isn’t easy. They are damned for what they do and damned for what they don’t. But I have not yet encountered views on a leader’s partner that differ so wildly: if Johnson is a Marmite PM, Symonds is a double-strength helping in a super-size portion. And she is now, without question, one of the most influential – if unelected – women in Britain.
So who is she? Her father, Matthew Symonds, co-founded The Independent, and her mother, Josephine McAfee, was a lawyer at the newspaper; both were married to other people when Carrie was born. She was brought up by her mother in the affluent London suburb of East Sheen with sporadic, if courteous, contact with her father. Not all of his acquaintances have always been aware that he and Carrie are related. As the story of her relationship with Johnson broke in 2018, Matthew had lunch with an old journalist colleague, who expressed jocular surprise that Carrie was now as famous for her boyfriend as she was for her career in communications. ‘Yes,’ replied Matthew laconically, ‘that’s my daughter.’
Privately educated at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith – whose alumnae include Nigella Lawson and Kate Beckinsale – she was, friends remember, a sporty, ebullient and ‘extremely pretty’ girl with ‘lots to say, but never unpleasant or bitchy’. At school, says a fellow ‘Dolphin’, the worst you could say about Carrie was that she sought attention and giggled a lot. After Latymer, she read art history and theatre studies at the University of Warwick, where she was hard-working (she got a first and reportedly aspired to be an actress), but good fun, too: fond of fancy-dress parties and clubbing. Her thick, mousy hair turned golden blonde and has since settled at a less blingy shade of tawny.
In her 20s, she burnished a glowing social-media presence, combining a very Noughties boho fashion sense with a slim, tanned figure: ‘the best legs on campus’, recalls a former Warwick student yearningly. Yet her youthful party days were marred by a traumatic event that would also ignite her campaigning determination. In 2007, she was targeted by the serial sex offender and taxi driver John Worboys as she waited for a bus on the King’s Road in Chelsea after a night out. Once she was in his cab, he gave her spiked drinks. She poured one on the floor of the car, but drank the second one. She woke up at home at 3pm the following day, with little memory of the night before. She was 19. The evidence Symonds later gave against Worboys at Croydon Crown Court helped to convict him, even if she paid a personal price in revisiting what had happened – ‘I broke down afterwards,’ she said at the time.
A decision by the Parole Board to grant Worboys early release in 2018 horrified his victims, and Symonds threw herself into the fight to keep him behind bars, helping to raise more than £60,000 to fund an appeal. Her campaigning put her on a collision course with the then justice secretary, David Gauke, who was ultimately responsible for the failings of the Probation Service. The saga ended in victory: Worboys’s early release was struck down. Symonds showed real courage – at a moment when, as a government adviser at the time tells me, she had no ‘strong patronage’. It put everyone who was paying attention on notice: Symonds had mettle.
Once she had given up on her thespian hopes, she showed a singular determination to master the slippery art of comms. Her university summers were spent interning at PR and media companies and, in 2011, she started working for the Conservative Party as a press officer. Her star rose quickly, and she became highly regarded for her nous and ability to get ministers out of a sticky spot. One of the staffers she interviewed for his first job told me she was resolutely ‘unstuffy’, quick to put non-Oxbridge Tories at ease. A young man who was nervous about coming out as gay – he feared an adverse impact on his career – confided first in Symonds, sensing she would boost his confidence and ‘not make a fuss’.
She also became renowned for her white-wine-fuelled social life, fattening a contacts book that serves her to this day. An attendee of Symonds’s ‘big nights out’ remembers belting out female power ballads, with Symonds ‘warbling Celine Dion at full pelt in the cab on the way home’. Guests at her 30th birthday included Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, former rivals who ended the night dancing exuberantly to Abba. (If that sparks incredulity, I can vouch that the PM, whom I’ve known since my own Oxford days, is a surprisingly energetic disco dancer.) The chosen anthem was, inevitably, The Winner Takes It All.
Key to Symonds’s success has been her ability to stay cool under pressure. In 2016, while she was working for Whittingdale, the cerebral culture secretary became embroiled in a story worthy of The Thick of It when details came to light of a relationship he’d had with a woman who – unbeknown to him at the time – was a sex worker. Whittingdale admits the saga was ‘embarrassing’, but says Symonds ‘played a blinder… I have nothing but praise for how well she handled the situation.’
The EU referendum provided a make-or-break moment. ‘Carrie didn’t hesitate,’ Whittingdale recalls. ‘She felt strongly that the Leave campaign was the right thing and that it needed input from a younger generation as well as the diehards.’ In some ways, her Euroscepticism sits oddly with her background – west London is hardly a Leave heartland, and her father has shown Remain sympathies. But Symonds’s Brexit position was linked to her ‘opposition to the live export of farm animals’, explains Whittingdale. And pinning her colours to the Leave side brought other advantages. It rocketed her onto the radar of the breakout star of the campaign: Boris Johnson. And it meant that she was in an enviable position after the referendum, when Leavers were fast-tracked into certain key roles. In 2017, the gamble paid off and she got the job she had long coveted: head of comms for the Conservative Party. Yet it was a fraught stay. A former team member felt she gave too much priority to her ‘attachment to the Great Men of Tory history’ by sucking up to Gove and Johnson. Symonds left after a year, and subsequent reports alleged that questions had been raised about her expenses – taxis particularly. (A friend of Symonds insisted she’d been smeared by ‘opponents of Brexit’.) Her departure coincided with a closer relationship with Johnson, who was ill at ease at the Foreign Office.
Rumours of their closeness began to surface early in 2018, after Symonds, still head of Conservative Party communications at the time, offered Johnson private coaching to help him sell a message of an upbeat fresh start for the party and get a grip on the new era of Brexit. Their relationship has, in many ways, always been highly public – it didn’t take long for pictures of the pair to emerge as they had a Valentine’s Day lunch at Tory hotspot Rules in Covent Garden. Johnson has always favoured ‘intense affairs – on/off ones or short ones’, says a long-standing friend. But Symonds was a ‘keeper’. Marina Wheeler, the eminent barrister to whom Johnson had been married for 25 years, concluded she’d had enough. They formally split when he stopped being foreign secretary. One member of a group of Johnson’s trusted friends tells me: ‘Boris truly regrets a lot of the time he spent philandering and wishes he had been more of a family man. And I think he still has regrets about the end of things with Marina.’
But with nowhere else to go, Johnson, running for the Tory leadership by mid-2019, found himself living in Symonds’s Camberwell flat. The trailing wires of Johnson’s previous lives haunted his new relationship. Allegations of a past fling with tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri surfaced. And there were deeper tensions, which led to a well-publicised row during an unsettled period. Symonds and Johnson’s white-hot argument was recorded by unsympathetic neighbours, and reports emerged that Johnson had shouted at Symonds to ‘get off my f***ing laptop’ (she, in turn, allegedly called him ‘spoilt’ and told him to ‘get out’). Symonds felt unable to return to the flat full-time and moved out stealthily (‘suitcase by suitcase’, says someone who helped). But when Johnson won the leadership in late July, it was announced that Symonds would be moving to Downing Street, too – the first unmarried partner of a prime minister to do so. Lord Marland, an entrepreneur and loyal backer of the PM, was initially wary, as were many of the old guard. ‘Carrie clearly channelled her own ambition into his,’ he recalls. ‘But you have to hand it to her – her instincts were sound and she added more discipline and focus to Boris’s quest for the leadership. And it has paid off.’
Ensconced in the most famous flat in London, despairing over Theresa May’s glum decor, and with a ‘baby hatching’, as Symonds would later put it, she was soon advocating for an election to allow Johnson his own mandate. Finally, an election was called, and the would-be prime minister was helped along by Dominic Cummings to an easy victory. The landslide crowned Symonds’s success, too – but rumours of interference in personnel decisions have dogged the fiancée-in-chief since she first planted a high-heeled court shoe in No 10. The relationship between Cummings and Symonds is said to have always been scratchy, and many see her hand behind his decision to quit Downing Street abruptly in November. Recently, it was reported that Nimco Ali – dubbed the ‘First Friend’ – was appointed to an advisory role on a campaign against gender-based violence after lobbying from Symonds, and without a competitive application process. Sources close to the story insist that Symonds was uninvolved – and in truth, the charismatic Somali-born activist Ali is amply qualified for the role.
Is Symonds too influential? Or is the question itself naive, even retrograde? A now-senior adviser who has worked for her diagnoses a dose of sexism in her treatment. ‘There is a certain sort of Conservative who still reckons the role of a PM’s wife is not to have an opinion. Or if she does, for it to be the same as her other half ’s.’ A fan in the cabinet concurs. ‘Of course Boris listens to her. She has better training in political communications than he does and understands the views of younger voters and how they need to be brought into his mix. He’d be mad not to.’
But by no means is everyone as blasé about the extent of her influence. According to a source who is close to Johnson, No 10 has become something akin to a Tudor court, with Symonds driving knowledgeable staff ‘wild by throwing her weight around’. Johnson, the friend continues, is ‘absolutely knackered. It was never supposed to end up like this. The relationship was a thing on the side. I think he is a bit surprised as to where it has ended up.’ And the rise of this new power broker is also said to have alienated Lord Lister, who has been a rock for Johnson since the PM’s days as London mayor and briefly acted as his chief of staff. ‘The guard is changing – and so is the pecking order,’ sighs an old ally. Other assessments from the OFOBs (Old Friends of Boris) see her as a young, thrusting apparatchik who hastened the end of Johnson’s marriage to the mother of four of his children. Were it not for Symonds, they insist, a reconciliation with Johnson’s ‘soulmate’ may have been possible.
Now bedded down (and frequently locked down) in the Downing Street flat he shares with Symonds, Johnson, in his sixth decade, finds himself closely involved with the upbringing of Wilfred, the son born to the couple in April 2020. The pandemic has enforced domesticity on Johnson, previously a hard man to pin down, though accounts differ of the level of bliss. Rumours of highly audible fights in the flat have seeped out. Last year was ‘awful’, says a friend of Symonds. A staffer spoke to her when Johnson was in hospital with Covid-19. He tells me he found Symonds, then heavily pregnant, ‘in floods of tears’ and ‘fully aware that [Johnson] had only a 50 per cent chance of survival. She knew she had a real chance of having to raise their baby alone.’
Another visitor to the flat in the summer worried that the couple did not have enough help. ‘It is not the US or French system, with a huge staff on tap. They were ordering from Ocado but often didn’t have enough time to plan or cook the meals, so the fridge needed sorting out. Everyone looked stressed.’ Symonds, recovering from both childbirth and her own brush with Covid, was taking food down to Johnson, and texted a friend to say she was feeling so tired, she would sit down on the stairs on the way back up. Added to which, notes a friend Johnson has known since school, ‘Boris was lonely. Carrie’s friends aren’t really his – there is an age gap, after all. It has taken time to knit their two worlds together.’
In the autumn, matters improved as Johnson’s health recovered and Symonds turned to the task of putting the couple’s stamp on their new home. It is, by all accounts, much improved from what a visitor calls the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ of the May years. These days, according to people I speak to who have visited the flat, Wilfred’s nursery has vintage furniture, hand-restored by Symonds, who also had the hall floors stripped and the floorboards burnished. The main room is now deep green and often candlelit. There are paintings by John Nash, by Boris’s artist mother, Charlotte, and by Boris himself, plus handprints by Wilfred. ‘Boris is a surprisingly good artist,’ admits one visitor not given to gushing about Johnson. At Christmas last year, Symonds’s mother, Josephine, formed a ‘support bubble’ with the couple to help look after Wilfred. Although unreported, it was decided soon afterwards that the high coronavirus risk in London and the difficulty of rendering No 10 Covid-secure for an older person meant that it would be unwise for Josephine to be there regularly until the vaccine has been fully rolled out.
Symonds’s decisive influence over the prime minister and over the running of the country came into stark relief at the end of last year, with the departure of Cummings and Lee Cain, the PM’s Leave campaign allies. Scalps duly claimed, Symonds supported the appointment of Allegra Stratton – a shrewd ex-political journalist, who had shone as the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s adviser – to the role of press secretary. The ousting of the ‘Brexit boys’ provoked a minor genderquake, and now the triumvirate of Symonds, Stratton and Sarah Vaughan-Brown, the forthright former communications boss of ITN, runs the Boris-and-Carrie show.
Already, a less macho strategy seems to be at work. While bitter arguments continue to rage about the government’s response to the pandemic, Symonds and Johnson have undertaken squishier comms exercises, such as a joint appearance on camera in November 2020, in which they thanked the health workers who had defined their year. Overall, the First Couple’s style has gone rather Barack-and-Michelle, aimed at defusing hostility towards a leader who divides opinions.
Dramas will keep unfolding in this eventful new Camelot, however. The ousting of Cummings and Cain was ultimately the PM’s call, as a result of what the Carrie-ites call ‘an impossible situation’ after Cummings’s reckless trip to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown – although Johnson had in fact stuck by him for more than six months. Sources present at the November showdown deny that there was a party in the upstairs flat as Cummings and Cain abruptly took their leave. ‘Not a party, just drinks.’ Champagne corks popping? ‘Well, something fizzy – but not a party.
‘Post-maternity leave, Symonds is now throwing herself into a new role, running communications for The Aspinall Foundation, led by conservationist Damian Aspinall. He approached Symonds for the position and tells me she is the ‘perfect person to communicate our vision and values’. It’s a very Symonds match – Aspinall is committed to returning wild animals to their natural habitats, and he’s also embedded in plutocratic Tory circles: close to the Goldsmiths (Symonds and Zac have long been good friends), related to George Osborne, and by intermarriage closely connected to many others in Kensington and Chelsea. Doubtless Symonds reckons she can handle the PR after a career built among the touchy primates of politics, but the role may prove bumpier than it looks. Aspinall has raised eyebrows by admitting he would ‘cheerfully’ shoot a poacher himself (‘I wouldn’t hesitate’). Still, Symonds is understandably adamant that she does not want to be professionally constrained by her relationship with the PM.
But she does make use of her position. When one female staffer complains to me that Symonds ‘stomps around, issuing orders in her leather trousers’, I send a note to Symonds’s entourage to check on the nature of the leather. A WhatsApp message on my phone immediately clarifies that Symonds favours figure-hugging black ‘pleather’, adding: ‘She would never wear (animal) leather trousers – not her style.’
Beyond lockdown-wear, she has moved from short skirts and bare shoulders to a romantic and sober new look, favouring classically influenced designers such as Eponine London and Justine Tabak. Comparisons with the Duchess of Cambridge’s blended modern-trad style pop up a lot. Has Symonds gone a bit regal? ‘Basically,’ whispers a mandarin who has worked with both the palace and Downing Street, ‘her allies think she is Kate and her detractors think she is at the high-maintenance end of Meghan.’
One thing is for sure: Symonds is here to stay. She has smartened up her man, spruced up the Downing Street flat and her campaigns keep ending in victory. In the words of a Conservative Campaign Headquarters staffer, she is ‘a political thoroughbred who loves to race’. When the Covid crisis abates, Team Boris will need to exude calm for the long haul of post-pandemic politics – without losing its capacity to campaign with brutal effectiveness. Symonds, the staffer turned First Lady of Downing Street, will be a core part of that quest. Carrie’s War is only just beginning.
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue
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