Lady Macbeth. Carrie Antoinette. Princess Nut-Nut. Those who don’t like Carrie Johnson née Symonds are not short of names for her.
The Prime Minister’s third wife is in the spotlight again this week thanks to extracts from a new book by the Tory peer, Michael Ashcroft, which claims she meddles in government decision-making. The case against her will be familiar to Westminster watchers who have followed the enthusiastic efforts of Dominic Cummings to discredit her. She has been accused of being behind the decision to evacuate animals from the Nowzad rescue shelter out of Kabul as Afghanistan was falling to the Taliban; of prompting the extravagant refurbishment of the Downing Street flat by a ludicrously expensive designer, which it turned out her husband could not pay for; of interfering in Boris Johnson’s leadership bid to the extent of sending texts from his phone; of having undue influence over staffing and even policy decisions; and of being the main culprit behind Downing Street’s lockdown-busting party culture.
Carrie Johnson’s response (issued through a spokesperson) was that she is being “targeted by a brutal briefing campaign”, and that she is a “a private individual who plays no role in government”. A chorus of government allies have since come out to brand any claims against her as “sexist”. Critics might wonder whether it is necessarily sexist to object to the PM’s unelected partner holding the kind of political sway she seems to enjoy. Her well-documented love of animals, for example, may have been responsible for Afghans who had assisted British forces being abandoned as the Taliban took over (while both Boris and Carrie deny having anything to do with the Nowzad evacuation, there is evidence to suggest otherwise). Political spouses must walk a fine line, playing the role of trusted confidant without veering into outright manipulation, and it looks a lot like Carrie has crossed it.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. Let’s take the most uncharitable reading possible: that Carrie is a conniving schemestress who tried to exert her influence over her husband to get her political way at every turn. So what?
There’s a limit to how much I want to consider the intricacies of anyone else’s marriage, least of all the Prime Minister’s, but even Carrie’s harshest critics have stopped short of accusing her of coercive or abusive behaviour. Instead, the charges are that she made it clear what she wanted – staff appointed or rejected, wallpaper purchased, animals rescued – and her wishes were granted, with Boris Johnson cast in the role of benevolent genie unable to say no to his exacting mistress.
Sorry, but the real point here is he’s the Prime Minister. He decided he was the right person to run the country, and part of that decision surely meant considering himself capable of holding his own views. If (as Cummings has alleged) Carrie was raving at him to divert Downing Street’s attention away from tackling a looming pandemic in March 2020 in order to refute a news story about the couple’s dog Dilyn, the only sane response is to say, “Sorry darling, I know you’re upset, but I was elected to lead this nation and this whole Covid nightmare is more important. We’ll figure out the dog thing another time.”
The same goes for wasting precious Foreign Office resources to get some pets out of Afghanistan and deciding key Downing Street appointments: “I’m the Prime Minister, you’re not: it’s my call.” As for the extravagant flat refurbishment, if the wallpaper was Carrie’s idea then allowing a Tory donor to break electoral financing rules to pay for it was very much on Boris. Even the rumours that she was responsible for some of the “gatherings” in Downing Street currently under police investigation are far more damning of the Prime Minister than his socialising wife – perhaps she broke the rules, but he was literally the one making them.
And while it isn’t sexist to expect an unelected spouse – of any gender – to have the moral integrity and good sense to steer well clear of political decisions, the notion that the Prime Minister’s wife is somehow to blame for his behaviour feeds into one of the oldest misogynistic tropes in the book. It’s the familiar claim that good women should be responsible for their men, tempering their worst impulses and acting as their conscience when they risk going astray. We’ve seen arguments over the past few weeks that it was Carrie’s job to effectively cocoon Boris in a bubble of domestic bliss, providing “home comforts” so he could make important decisions without being distracted by trivial matters such as his son’s nappies, or that her audacity to hold political opinions of her own made her a liability. The fact that she is “demanding rather than supplying” is alleged to be “the biggest explanation of the dysfunctionality inside Number 10”. The year, lest we forget, is 2022.
Many of those going after Carrie no doubt think they are doing the Prime Minister a favour. “His wife’s behaviour is preventing him from leading Britain as effectively as the voters deserve,” wrote Ashcroft. It’s not his fault his political career is crumbling under the weight of too many scandals to count, and that even his long-term allies are starting to flee the sinking BoJo ship – it’s that pesky woman who let him down! But however pushy or deluded or opinionated Carrie may be, directing blame her way only serves to expose the deficiencies of her husband: a man so weak, so cowardly, so terrified of any kind of conflict or confrontation that his defenders are implying that he puts avoiding a row with his wife over the good of the country. Poor Boris Johnson. Have we ever seen a more pathetic Prime Minister?