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Lara Prendergast

Can Boris Johnson's 'little otter' make him woke enough to win?

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

Philip May seems a decent cove. He’s been stoic and loyal but I can’t help hoping that the next prime minister’s spouse will be a bit sparkier — and give us something to talk about other than Brexit.

I suspect that it will be a woman. If so, who? We have Lucia, Jeremy Hunt’s wife. He famously could not remember whether she was Japanese or Chinese. Then there’s Dominic Raab’s Brazilian wife, Erika, a marketing executive at Google. We discovered from a newspaper profile that the Raabs have a duck-egg blue and cream kitchen in their Surrey home. Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, is well known for her acidic columns in the Daily Mail. If she makes it to Downing Street, will she be allowed to keep writing them?

The bookies’ clear favourite to be prime minister is Boris Johnson, which raises the question of whether he would be accompanied by the new woman in his life (and possibly soon third wife), Carrie Symonds. I’ve been intrigued by the Boris-Carrie story ever since, one summer’s evening last year, I spotted her arriving at a party in London. Boris, then the foreign secretary, snuck in after her, looking animated. A few months passed, then news broke of their relationship — and his divorce.

Carrie’s ascent could end up being one for the history books: the former Tory director of communications who might now become Britain’s most senior political consort. What’s most striking is that, even in bitchy SW1, few people have a bad word to say about her. The Westminster bubble loathes Boris, but loves her. She (I’m reliably informed) ‘defines what it means to be a millennial conservative’. I’ve noticed political types go quite gooey when they talk about her. One MP says that they are backing Boris primarily because Carrie is behind him.

When she was named as his latest squeeze, newspaper profiles depicted her as a bubbly party girl nicknamed ‘Apples’ on account of her rosy cheeks. Plenty of Westminster insiders decided that was sexist and came valiantly to her defence. A joint letter was signed in protest at her treatment. She is not, I have been told more than once, just an effervescent blonde. She is ‘intelligent’, ‘well-connected’, ‘hard–working’ and ‘highly professional’. A journalist’s daughter, she also knows how to ‘control the narrative’.


What would she bring to No. 10? Like any millennial worth her pink Himalayan salt, Carrie’s Instagram page reveals much about how she wants to be seen by the world. Blue-skyed holiday snaps sit alongside darling outfits and pictures of cuddly animals. Boris is nowhere to be seen, but there is a fair bit of politics: a video clip from a James Bond film, for instance, with her face superimposed over 007’s, which is meant to show her battling against the destruction of the icebergs.

Millennials are pretty keen on saving the planet — and telling everyone about it — and Carrie is no exception. Her Twitter bio says she is a conservationist, and her new job is at Bloomberg, where her focus is on cleaning up the oceans. She seems to talk about saving the planet a lot more than saving her old party. She hates single-use plastics, loves David Attenborough and stopped using face wipes when she realised how damaging they were to marine life. She backed Brexit in part because it would allow Britain to ban the export of live animals.

These are hardly controversial conservative causes, which makes them perfect for social media. Who doesn’t want to save the whale? More controversial will be her drive to clean up Boris’s messy image. He has been put on a diet, given a sleek haircut and is contemplating veganism. Like David Cameron before him, he has started using animals to create a cuddlier image. In February, he was photographed snuggling a cheetah in a Kent zoo. Carrie calls him ‘Bozzie the bear’ while his name for her is ‘little otter’.

Smirk if you will, but it makes political sense. It’s a common complaint among Tories that the youth despise them. Euro elections this week showed that young voters across the continent are more interested in conservation than left versus right. The Tories were forced into fifth place because the Greens doubled their number of seats. So don’t be surprised if we soon hear Boris speak fluent environmentalese. It’s Carrie’s mother tongue.

The hardest part to blur over is the fact that Carrie is the woman for whom Boris finally left his wife Marina. Traditional voters — and feminist ones — might struggle with the unsisterly affair. Or perhaps not. As Boris’s sister, Rachel, once wrote: ‘Women cannot resist men who obviously like women.’

Carrie has her own feminist credentials. She campaigned against the early release of dangerous prisoners, following the parole board’s decision to free the rapist John Worboys last year. She was one of his youngest victims and showed courage in testifying against him in court ten years ago. She has also backed Nimco Ali — co-founder of the Daughters of Eve project — in her campaign to help end female genital mutilation. Last year, they took a road trip to Port Eliot Festival to ‘talk FGM, gender equality… and drink lots of cider’.

All in all, a rather glowing picture, wouldn’t you say?  It may be just what Boris needs. A flutter of adorable emojis over his leadership campaign. A sensible millennial voice in his ear. The woke yin to his Brexit yang. That’ll be the narrative, anyway.

What is the job of a political spouse? On this week’s Spectator Podcast, Isabel Hardman talks to Nevena Bridgen, wife of Andrew Bridgen and creator of The Wives of Westminster blog, and Paula Milne, the writer of The Politician’s Wife and The Politician’s Husband (16:45):


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