LONDON – Of all the unsavory ethical questions swirling around Prime Minister Boris Johnson these days, the one that got stuck is how he paid for the costly renovation of his Downing Street apartment. And that put his 33-year-old fiancee, Carrie Symonds, in the particularly scorching spotlight.
Mr Johnson has been accused in reports of secretly using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement his public budget for the redecorating of the apartment – a charge which although Mr Johnson said he repaid the apartment money, sparked a UK election inquiry. Commission. But it was Ms Symonds and her supposedly dear taste for wallpaper and designer furniture that became a recurring theme on social media and in UK tabloids.
‘#CarrieAntoinette’ is trending as a Twitter hashtag, while Labor Party leader Keir Starmer had photographed himself studying wallpaper in UK department store John Lewis – a laborious stunt destined to shed light on reports that Ms Symonds was poking fun at the Downing Street Decor left by Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, as a ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’.
Never mind, Ms Symonds has not been cited for saying anything about John Lewis. The reference, in a profile of her in Tatler magazine, is attributed to an anonymous person who visited her once in the apartment. Tatler reported that Ms Symonds oversaw the renovation project and her involvement means that she, too, may have to turn over evidence to the Election Commission.
For Ms Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications chief who now works for an animal rights group, this is the last trial in a year overloaded with drama: Mr Johnson’s near-fatal illness after contracting the coronavirus; the birth of their son, Wilfred; and the bitter purge of Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, in which she allegedly played a behind-the-scenes role.
It all put Ms Symonds at the heart of a familiar narrative, full of sexism and double standards: the greedy and manipulative politician’s partner. She joins a parade of women from Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose whispers to their men were the subject of feverish suspicion.
The fact that her relationship with Mr Johnson coincided with the breakdown of her 25-year marriage and that she became the first unmarried partner to move to Downing Street only adds to the tabloid portrayal of Ms Symonds like a libertine Lady Macbeth or an upward mobile Marie Antoinette – choose your shot.
“The inordinate fascination with Carrie Symonds’ role in the Prime Minister’s circle reflects outdated sexist tropes that view women in positions of influence as inherently devious,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and researcher at the London School of Economics.
Her supporters say that as an accomplished political actor in her own right, Ms Symonds has no less right to offer advice to the Prime Minister than any other unpaid adviser – and it would be wise to do so. accept.
And yet, others say, there are legitimate questions to be asked about Ms Symonds’ influence, which goes beyond the news media’s obsessive attention to home improvements in Downing Street. His ardent defense of animal rights was said to have helped the government’s decision to end the culling of badgers in Derbyshire, which contradicted the advice of scientists and veterinarians.
Friends of Ms Symonds have been installed in key posts in Downing Street and, according to Mr Cummings’ account, protected by her even after proof of wrongdoing. On his blog, he claimed Mr Johnson wanted to end an investigation into the leaks after it became clear the culprit was Henry Newman, a close adviser to Ms Symonds.
Mr Cummings quoted Mr Johnson as allegedly saying to him, “If Newman is confirmed to be the elusive then I will have to fire him, and it will give me very serious problems with Carrie because they are best friends.”
Downing Street has denied that Mr Johnson tried to shut down the investigation, but he did not comment on Ms Symonds’ role.
Her supporters say she has a savvy political sense and might well have aspire to a seat in Parliament had she not started a relationship with Mr Johnson. To the extent that she gives him advice, some say it helps: Dropping Mr Cummings and other diehard Brexiteers has softened the PM’s image and improved his popularity before recent ethics issues do not bring him back to his more familiar role. like a political scalawag.
“She was fantastic – she is very loyal and has been very supportive,” said John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary to whom Ms Symonds served as special advisor. He described her as “a very committed Conservative” and a “very strong supporter of Brexit” at a time when it was a less popular position.
“The people attacking Carrie clearly see a way to harm the Prime Minister by attacking her,” he said.
Ms Symonds suffers from a few disabilities, one of which is the lack of a job description for a Prime Minister’s partner. The role has no constitutional status, and unlike that of first lady in the United States, little administrative support. Successful spouses usually have a strong identity outside of Downing Street.
Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, was a businessman, as was Mrs May’s husband, Philip. David Cameron’s wife Samantha ran a fashion business, while Ms Blair, who once had her own political ambitions, worked as a high-profile lawyer during her husband’s decade in power. Although Ms Blair’s influence was criticized from the start, the review calmed down as she built a thriving legal career.
“She always knew she could go back to her job at the bar, which made it less demeaning to be the appendix,” said Fiona Millar, reporter and assistant to Ms. Blair. Ms Symonds, she said, “doesn’t seem to have that life outside of politics, which people who have been successful in it have.”
Daughter of Matthew Symonds, co-founder of The Independent, and lawyer for the newspaper, Josephine McAfee, Ms Symonds was raised by her mother (both parents were married to other people at the time).
Her young adulthood was deeply affected by an incident in 2007 when she was targeted by a taxi driver who served her fortified drinks while driving her home. Ms Symonds testified against the man, John Worboys, who was jailed as a serial sexual predator.
Well connected and social, Ms Symonds became a public relations aide for the Conservative Party, before becoming head of communications, where she met Mr Johnson. The couple had hoped to tie the knot last summer, after their divorce from Marina Wheeler became final, but delayed the date due to coronavirus restrictions.
Life in Downing Street is less glamorous than it looks, Ms Millar said. While the job comes with a spacious apartment in Westminster, a baronial weekend house, Checkers and an annual decorating budget of £ 30,000 ($ 41,600), the government is not paying for the food or house staff. Outside of public occasions, the couple have to cook for themselves or buy take-out.
Living above the desk, as Mr Johnson battled the pandemic and his own illness, was a challenge, people who know Ms Symonds have said. She contracted Covid herself, while pregnant, then looked after their baby while Mr Johnson, 56, still recovered from his illness.
“There were times last week that were really, really dark,” Ms Symonds tweeted after being released from an intensive care unit. Despite this, it has retained its interest in environmental protection.
“Since I got Wilf and couldn’t make it to stores during the lockdown,” she posted four months later, “I have relied on Amazon for a lot of baby essentials , but I was appalled at the amount of plastic packaging. Please sign this petition to ask Amazon to provide us with plastic-free options as well. “
Political commentators say they see Ms Symonds’ fingerprints in Mr Johnson’s adherence to green policies. They say she played with her pragmatic instincts in pushing him towards a more conciliatory policy.
Few of the Prime Minister’s partners have been so deeply involved in politics. Not only does she know the Conservative Party well, but she also has close contacts among its lawmakers, political journalists and special advisers who play important roles in Downing Street and elsewhere in government.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said people had questioned Ms Symonds ‘influence’ because of her specific knowledge and connections and her experience as a political agent and because of Boris Johnson’s malleability, and the fact that no one is sure what’s in their head.
Part of the unease over Ms Symonds is as much about Mr Johnson as she is. With few fixed positions and a lack of ideological anchors, he leaves the impression that his decisions can be influenced by those who have the most access to him. In a year of lockdown, that circle has at times narrowed to Ms Symonds.
“The reason we’re arguing about this is because we think we are under-numbered as Prime Minister,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is a senior UK researcher in a changing Europe, a London think tank. “If we thought we had a very good prime minister, would we really care about the identity of his wife, beyond hoping that he has a happy personal life?”