One of the least attractive aspects of American politics is epitomized in the ‘Office of the First Lady’. The office in the East Wing of the White House has grown under consecutive presidents and, depending on the incumbent’s ambitions, can include policy and legislative initiatives. All emanate from a person solely in place because some years earlier they were lucky enough — or otherwise — to marry a person who became president. It all makes America less like a democracy, more like a court, with the inevitable overspill of ‘First Children’ and more.
By convention Britain has been spared that problem. Prime-ministerial spouses can be strong figures in their own right, but all have sought to play down any hint that they are attempting to influence government. Yet in the position of First Girlfriend Brits are now suffering precisely America’s problem and more. There is no getting around the fact that there is a problem with Carrie Symonds, which it is probably best to have out now.
In 2019 Boris Johnson came in with a significant and clear mandate. COVID has added significantly to his workload. But for many of us he seemed the perfect — even the only — man for the hour. Yet as that hour has gone on, problems of his own creation keep appearing. Too many of them originate from the sway — even terror — his younger companion seems to exert over him.
Carrie Symonds herself is a perfectly nice, intelligent person who successfully worked her way through Conservative campaign headquarters. But she is having too great an impact on the course of government. There are issues the prime minister avoids because she does not favor them. And there are others — principally green issues — which he appears to adopt to satisfy her. The feeling is growing that the First Girlfriend wants political power without the trouble of having to run for office, and to wield it without any resulting criticism. This is not a sustainable state of affairs.
One early example came last year when Symonds persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull. The resulting halt went against more expert advice and, incidentally, had a deeply negative repercussion on the hedgehog community. Yet while a politician would pay a price for such a misstep, the First Girlfriend is accountable to no one. Instead, with a personal media adviser on a six-figure salary working for her directly from No. 10, even the most modest criticism is responded to with a furious slew of accusations against the critics.
It is not just policy she seeks to influence. The First Girlfriend seems to have a desire to be involved in all personnel issues. Her principal ambition seems to be for her friends to make up all the central control flanks around the prime minister. This was one of the main causes of Dominic Cummings’s exit from Downing Street last year.
The consequences of that decision alone keep being felt. Last week’s exchange of barbs between the prime minister and his former chief adviser once again shone a light on the Carrie problem. For Cummings claimed that the PM last year attempted to stop an official leak inquiry because the person Cummings identified as the leak was a close friend of Carrie’s. ‘This will cause me very serious problems with Carrie,’ the PM is reported to have said, before trying to quash the inquiry.
This is not in itself surprising. It seems no Carrie-related issue is ever too minor to distract the PM. Last year she made him stop a Cobra meeting at the height of the COVID crisis. The urgent cause was her demand that the PM make an official complaint to the Times of London over a story claiming that Carrie’s affections for the couple’s Jack Russell, Dilyn, had cooled in the year since the couple adopted him.
This exhibited a crazy set of priorities, as the PM finally realized. But anyone who even identifies this should expect one of Carrie’s court defenders to come for them. Earlier this year, Katie Hind performed this role in the Mail on Sunday. There Hind incorrectly asserted that Carrie’s critics were not only all male but also ‘old-school’ and ‘white’. They are also apparently ‘sexist old Tory dinosaurs’ who are ‘afraid of intelligent women’. Similar claims have been made by the former sport minister Tracey Crouch and Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, who has claimed that the problem is that ‘jealous little men feel threatened by intelligent women’. What none of these defenders ever takes into account is the possibility that any concerns might rather be prompted by the fact of a person with no mandate to make policy and personnel decisions constantly being permitted to make them.
Whenever they battle for Carrie, her friends inadvertently give this away. Hind berated Carrie’s male critics for knowing ‘only too well that she doesn’t have a voice to respond. Nor does her beloved dog Dilyn’. The second part of this is undoubtedly true. Dilyn does not have a voice because he is a dog, and not even sexist old Tory dinosaurs can be blamed for that. But the giveaway came here: ‘Carrie’s crime is quite clear — she got in the way of the Brexit Boys who thought they could have it all their way.’
Now you may applaud the success of Carrie getting Cummings and co out of her way or you may deprecate it. But it hardly refutes the charge that Carrie is meddling where she should not. It actually celebrates the fact.
Still, the trap laid by Carrie and her defenders is clear. Say that Carrie has gained political influence only because of who her boyfriend is, and you will be accused of being envious of powerful, successful women who have made it in their own right. ‘Carrie is an expert in politics,’ one well-briefed source recently told the media. And she may well be. But that is not why she is sleeping in No. 10.
In the UK anyone who wishes to have political power should run for elected office. The emergent Office of First Lady is clearly a source of tension in Downing Street, and is already responsible for an unprecedented number of interventions in policy areas that affect our country. We hear nothing from the prime minister on issues he was elected on, and far too much on ones that Carrie happens to favor. The prime minister may have need of a First Girlfriend, but the country does not.