The phrase ‘petticoat government’ has, for reasons that escape me, gone out of currency lately. But it came to mind this morning when the BBC reported that the Prime Minister’s communications chief, Lee Cain, had resigned, even though he’d only just reportedly been appointed as Downing Street Chief of Staff. One reason, the BBC explained matter-of-factly, was that the PM’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, was opposed to his appointment.
I can’t have been alone in thinking: what? Come again? Carrie Symonds running the show in Downing Street? I thought we’d moved on a bit since the days when you had the king's ear because you were close to him; back then the personal really was the political.
Miss Symonds is a former Conservative party communications head, so she has experience of these things, but we should be quite clear about this: if Symonds is calling the shots inside Number 10, it’s not because of her former role and qualifications, but because she is the PM’s fiancée. It is a pretty undignified way to run a government – and presumably means that people looking to influence the PM will try to get Carrie’s ear.
I can’t honestly think of any prime ministerial spouse who has become so embroiled in a Downing Street row. Symonds is said to have called up journalists and briefed the media herself. In what capacity, I wonder? Samantha Cameron was politically aware and was said to have influenced Dave about gay marriage, but you couldn’t see her running a campaign against a Number 10 appointment. Sarah Brown was a former PR person herself, but she didn’t try to get members of Downing Street staff cancelled. Cherie Blair attracted a good deal of flak for all sorts of reasons, but she didn’t displace actual advisers. As for Denis Thatcher, it wouldn’t have crossed his mind.
The Carrie intervention has been presented – by the Telegraph, for instance – as a ‘revolt of Number 10 women’. Consider this gem from the FT about Lee Cain’s appointment:
‘Does the PM think that it is appropriate?’ said one Conservative official. ‘All the people with access to him would be men. That's hardly governing in the spirit of Biden-Harris.’
So, this power grab is an exercise in feminism? Oh, please.
Look, the real problem with Boris’s operation, it seems to me, is not just that it’s confused, chaotic and inconsistent – and it is all these things. The problem is that it is too removed from the concerns of actual MPs: people of both sexes who went to the trouble of running for election and who are in touch with their constituents’ concerns.
The most important thing for Boris and whoever runs his show is that he remains connected to the Conservative parliamentary party, who are incredulous that this preposterous infighting has stolen the news agenda from the real concerns of government.
I don’t have any particular brief for Lee Cain; if he has actually overseen the direction of the government over the last six months, he doesn’t have much to brag about. I also wish, like other members of the entourage, that he’d actually wear a smart suit.
But for his appointment to be announced, then pulled, because he’s seen as too male by the Prime Minister’s girlfriend is bizarre. Carrie has been given an awful lot of slack by the pundits because she’s millennial, wokeish and concerned for the environment. But her reported influence now is not less old-fashioned because it’s exercised in the name of feminism. She doesn’t wear one, but it’s still petticoat government.