Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.
The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.
A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”
He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”
Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.
For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.
Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.
“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:
“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.
“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”
According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:
“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.
“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.
“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…
“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.
“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”
A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”
Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.
H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:
“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”
The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.
She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.
In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.
Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.
Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.
So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.
She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.
Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”
She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:
“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”
That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.
In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:
“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”
She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.
One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.
In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.
During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.
CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.
Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.
Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.
Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.
“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”
Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.
In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.
The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.
Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.
In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.
Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.
A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.
The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”
A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.
“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”
The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.
But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.
A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.
If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.