Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancée, ‘gets’ the media. That’s what her friends are quick to tell you. She’s a PR professional. If she doesn’t like the thrust of a story, she lets you know. She contacts journalists to tell them how ‘disappointed’ she is in their sloppy work. And she doesn’t seem all that scared of senior newspaper editors, perhaps because her father co-founded the Independent. It’s said she even thinks she can ‘edit what goes in the Mail on Sunday’.
When the Times ran a silly piece suggesting she had ‘grown weary’ of Dilyn, her rescue dog, and that the poor creature was facing a ‘reshuffle’, she is said to have interrupted a Cobra meeting to ask Boris to help her respond to the allegations. Never mind the pandemic! Carrie’s cutesy image was at stake. ‘The dog isn’t that popular in No. 10,’ confessed one source. ‘Nobody wants to tell Carrie this.’
Last week, we saw how Carrie ‘controls the narrative’. Even her detractors must admit it was quite formidable. She has purged No. 10 of Dominic Cummings, another person who likes to control the national conversation, and Lee Cain, the Prime Minister’s communications chief. The Vote Leave boys took a hiding. Or, as one breathless admirer put it: ‘She took on their press machine and won. She outwitted the Vote Leave tribe.’
For some MPs, this makes her their new patron saint. For others, it shows how Machiavellian she really is. Part of the reason she was able to conquer the Brexit lads was because she has assembled her own impressive court, which works hard to counteract negative stories about her. She has loyal friends in convenient places: her former squeeze Harry Cole is now political editor at the Sun; Politico journalist Alex Wickham is reportedly a godparent to her son Wilfred.
Are you thinking that it is a bit unusual for the 32-year-old, unelected, not-yet-third-wife of the Prime Minister to be calling the shots? Don’t. That’s sexist and you should know better. Carrie’s admirers are quick to scold those who dare suggest that she might be getting a bit big for her green wellies. Do you really not expect a prime minister to consult with his partner? In the 21st century? Enough with the Lady Macbeth comparisons — such a cliché.
Carrie’s orchestration of the latest regime change has been presented (by Team Carrie) as a feminist triumph. We were told (via the Mail on Sunday) that Carrie ensured Allegra Stratton, the new Downing Street press secretary, would be paid as much as Cain and Cummings. That’s girl power, all right, but the suggestion that Carrie is a great champion of women has also surprised some Westminster types. ‘She’s not really a fan of other women,’ says one person who has worked with her. Perhaps that’s because Boris is.
Carrie and Boris’s family has grown. Dilyn arrived last year and Wilfred was born in April. Boris and Carrie are due to marry at some point, although the Prime Minister is said to think she ‘deserves a big wedding’, which isn’t possible while his 15-person limit on special occasions remains in place. Dog, ring, baby: Carrie has reached many of the milestones which millennials like to brag about on their Instagram accounts. Boris even hosted a baby shower for her at Chequers. But the events of the past week suggest that she’s after much more. Her interest in Boris goes beyond the personal: it’s political.
So what does Carrie want? She is keen to present herself as a green, animal-loving Tory, the princess of whales. The causes close to her heart are conspicuously cuddly: she has taken a stand against trophy hunting for puffins in Iceland, for example. But her brand of greenery is a far cry from any conservative notion of curating the countryside. She’s spoken at events with Chris Packham, who opposes hunting and pheasant shooting. She is the driving force behind many of Boris’s ‘green recovery’ policies and thinks it is ‘brilliant’ that the government plans to return 30 per cent of the UK to the wild by 2030. It remains to be seen how popular all this is with Tory voters, let alone Boris’s increasingly bewildered supporters in the north.
Carrie is a millennial conservative. What matters to her is that she is seen to be alert to injustices in society. She is best pals with Nimco Ali, co-founder of the Daughters of Eve project, which campaigns against female genital mutilation. Ali has been awarded an OBE and made an independent adviser to the government. She is also reported to be another of Wilfred’s godparents. Ali has repaid these honours by calling Boris ‘a true feminist’. Earlier this year, the PM played a cameo role in an LGBT+ lip-sync battle held over Zoom, which Carrie was judging. We can probably expect a lot more of these sorts of PR stunts now that she has binned the ‘toxic males’.
Boris is self-isolating for two weeks, making Carrie the only adviser with ‘walk-in access’ to the Prime Minister — and it’s likely she has strong views on the cabinet reshuffle, the appointment of his new chief of staff, perhaps even the future direction of MI5. What Carrie wants is for her people to be in power.
Boris is said to have been uneasy with her parallel press operation. But he’s even more anxious about Carrie not getting what she wants. She tends to get what she wants. The question is, how long can that last? Controlling the narrative is one thing; controlling the government is quite another.