The first line of Michael Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography of Carrie Johnson tells you most of what you need to know about a book that the billionaire Conservative grandee, pollster and sometime non-dom insists is neither sexist nor misogynistic.
“On 24 July 2019, Carrie Symonds entered Downing Street as the first unmarried partner of a prime minister in British history,” he writes. The book’s subtitle is “Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson” but he may as well have gone for: “There’s Something a Bit Fishy about Unmarried Mothers”. Having told us that he will refer to his subject as “Carrie”, he opens with a breathless description of how “illegitimacy is in Mrs Johnson’s bloodline”.
“The young lady”, Ashcroft notes, actually had no rightful claim to call herself Symonds at all – since she was the product of an affair. Nor does her father, the journalist Matthew Symonds, who was “born out of wedlock”. The author also indulges the rumour that Carrie’s paternal grandmother might have been the lovechild of the former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, as if to show what a thoroughly duplicitous bunch of social climbers she descends from. Ashcroft doesn’t use the word “bastards” but you sense he’s itching to.
As character assassinations go, First Lady is less hit job and more s*** job. It comes from the “according-to-claims-in-the-Daily-Mail” school of unauthorised biographies (Ashcroft’s “chief researcher” is, indeed, sometime Mail journalist, Miles Goslett). None of Ashcroft’s sources have come up with the goods. There is no equivalent of the David Cameron pig’s head – the unsubstantiated detail from Ashcroft’s autobiography of the former prime minister, Call Me Dave (2015), that thrust its way into the nation’s nightmares – unless you count the £538 tax-payer funded gold-coloured iPad that Carrie apparently demanded while working for Sajid Javid. Or the revelation that she once played a frog in a school production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
Ashcroft does marshal enough evidence to suggest that 34-year-old Carrie Johnson (“the most powerful unelected woman in the United Kingdom after the Queen”) is meddlesome and attention-seeking, a kind of freeloading, Abba-loving, dog-smooching princessy cross-breed of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. But mostly what we have is heavy-breathing and insinuation. The phrases: “Readers must judge for themselves” and “Some will be surprised” do a lot of heavy lifting. I had the feeling of being cornered on a stairway at a party and mansplained to at great length by someone who can’t quite get to the point. A whiff of halitosis wafts from the page.
Which is not to say that Carrie Johnson (alias “Carrie Antoinette”, alias “Princess Nut-Nut”) isn’t an intriguing figure. Ashcroft has reproduced her “complicated but very colourful family tree” to make the case that there are common ancestral traits: namely infidelity and hunger for political influence. Her great-grandmother exchanged intimate letters with Asquith, who was 36 years her senior. Her grandfather, John Beavan, a journalist who became a Labour peer, had an affair with Anne Symonds (who was divorced but had kept her ex-husband’s name) which resulted in the birth of Carrie’s father, Matthew Symonds.
Ashcroft has no personal insight into the family, though he does have plenty of Fleet Street contacts willing to take a pop at “smartarse” Matthew, who helped to found the Independent newspaper in the 1980s. Stephen Glover and Mark Lawson both snicker at their former colleague, who wore Cuban heels and pink shirts, drove a red sports car and once brandished a packet of condoms in morning conference. Given the sexualised atmosphere, Symonds thought he could get away with smuggling his mistress, Josephine McAfee, onto the payroll as a sub-editor. After getting her pregnant, the scandal ended up in Private Eye. Ashcroft relishes the fact that Carrie Symonds “had the dubious honour of featuring in Private Eye while in utero”.
After Carrie’s birth (in March 1988), First Lady reveals itself to be somewhat threadbare. Ashcroft tells us that Carrie grew up with the “pious” McAfee in a modest, semi-detached three-bedroom Victorian house in East Sheen, near Richmond Park. She rarely saw her father, but he did pay her school fees, first at Bute House Prep School in Hammersmith and then nearby Godolphin and Latymer School. One of the only interesting details that Ashcroft and Goslett are able to offer from this period is from Carrie’s ex-boyfriend Oliver Haiste, who reveals that she “mastered the notoriously tricky art of being able to shed tears on cue”.
There’s much that is “not known”, “not clear” or “hard to glean” about her time reading theatre studies at Warwick University too – though Ashcroft doesn’t neglect to tell us that she sent a photograph of herself to FHM. (“She’s always been an attention seeker, there’s no denying that. I knew that from day one,” chirps up Haiste.) There is one more disturbing episode from this time, however. Carrie Johnson was 19 when John Worboys, the “black cab rapist”, trapped her in his vehicle and dared her to drink a glass of vodka. She can remember little after that though she is reasonably sure she wasn’t assaulted. Although she didn’t report the incident at the time, she later became one of the prosecution’s witnesses in 2009.
This unpleasantness dealt with, Ashcroft resumes the censorious tone as he details her rise through Conservative male-dom. She seems to have been fairly apolitical until the moment she secured a position as Zac Goldsmith’s marketing director after a single year working in PR. These were the heady days of the 2010 coalition government. Goldsmith, the dashing, animal loving, eco-conscious, independently wealthy new Tory MP for Richmond represented a breed. “‘Yah… We’re serious now,” Carrie is quoted in a Mirror article from the 2010 Conservative Party Conference. “There’s a different feel. We don’t hold meetings in bars. We have coffee mornings.’”
In 2011, she landed a job as press officer at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) and later that year, was seconded onto Boris Johnson’s campaign to be re elected as the mayor of London (at the time, he was reportedly more distracted with Jennifer Arcuri). The account of Carrie’s early career ascent is by far the most revealing section of the book; many (anonymous) former colleagues seem disgruntled at her scheming and “low-level skulduggery” as well as the fact that she “often [used] her flirtatious manner to good effect”.
Later parachuted into the Department of Culture Media and Sport as a special adviser, she is remembered for freeloading tickets to Wimbledon and the Baftas. Carrie then moved onto the less glamorous Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Here, she apparently spent much of her time trying to procure the aforementioned gold iPad (which wasn’t compatible with the computer network).
She joined Goldsmith’s successful campaign for re-election in 2017 – one member recalls her as “utterly, utterly useless” – before becoming director of communications at CCHQ aged 29. While there, she spent thousands of pounds on taxis, disguising her expenditure by making bookings in the name of junior colleagues, before being quietly removed from the job. Undaunted, she invited Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Johnson to her 30th birthday party. “It’s not normal for a young woman to have that many middle-aged male cabinet members at her 30th birthday,” complained one colleague. “It’s weird.”
By early spring 2018, Carrie’s relationship with Johnson, then foreign secretary, was discovered by an MP who found them in “compromising situation” in Johnson’s parliamentary office. Johnson’s wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, filed for divorce. Meanwhile, Carrie became firm friends with Nimco Ali, a British-Somali activist who has campaigned to end female genital mutilation – much to the bafflement of Ashcroft, who bristles at Carrie’s trendy “cabal of sycophants”.
First Lady dutifully trots through every fiasco of the Johnson administration: from wallpapergate to partygate, as well as many petty battles over Downing Street appointments. But here, Ashcroft and Goslett seem to lose heart. It becomes embarrassingly clear they know less about her life than, say, the Sun’s Harry Cole (an ex boyfriend) or Politico’s Alex Wickham (godfather to her son, Wilfred). First Lady is not the juicy roast we’ve been promised so much as a clingfilmed buffet of leftovers.
From reading this book, I have no idea what drives Carrie. But what is intriguing is the effect she has on the Tory Man. Goldsmith falls over himself to defend Carrie. Whittingdale (whom she helped out of a tight spot when he was found to unknowingly have had a relationship with a female sex worker) seemingly can’t turn his laptop on without her. But mention her to Dominic Cummings and he starts foaming at the mouth.
Many of Johnson’s Brexit-supporting fanboys (including Ashcroft) seem to suspect Carrie of being some kind of woke sleeper agent, distracting their idol with pillow talk about LGBTQ+ rights and whales. For others, she is simply not a good enough housewife. Johnson’s biographer, Tom Bower, painted him as an “exhausted politician in need of home comforts and regular square meals”. Ashcroft complains that the Prime Minister needs someone to ensure he has “a clean suit and shirt”.
I suspect there is a great story buried in here – that of a shy girl who becomes a compulsive attention-seeker and manages to mesmerise a fickle politician hellbent on becoming prime minister. But it evades Ashcroft, who flails around, treating banal details with a reverence otherwise reserved for royal commentary. And yet he barely mentions the fact she gave birth to two children in less than two years, during a pandemic, while living in Downing Street – the first time, within weeks of her husband being released from intensive care. Whatever you make of Carrie, isn’t that kind of interesting?
But let’s face it, childbirth and motherhood won’t appeal to all those male finger-waggers who make up Ashcroft’s target audience. What’s more, acknowledging Carrie Johnson has suffered as much as she has thrived would be problematic. He can’t afford to give her too much credit. It would force him to admit that he is not the only unelected individual with the cunning to amass direct power over a British prime minister. Worse: he has been usurped by a woman.
First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson
Biteback, 304pp, £20
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain