There could only be one winner. Shimmying across her office rooftop while miming valiantly to a Taylor Swift song, the new Tory MP Dehenna Davison beat a strong performance from veteran London politician Andrew Boff (resplendent in full drag and feather boa) to win the LGBT+ Conservative group’s virtual lip sync battle last month.
And laughing along over Zoom from her living room, her rescue dog Dilyn barking in the background, was Carrie Symonds. The prime minister’s 32-year-old fiancee not only judged the virtual fundraiser in aid of LGBT+ candidates but persuaded her partner to join her briefly on camera. Gone, apparently, was the Boris Johnson who wrote of “tank-topped bumboys” in a 1998 newspaper column. The one who, as London’s mayor, once wore a pink Stetson for Pride is back.
It’s been a rollercoaster few weeks for Symonds, who has seen her nemesis, Dominic Cummings, and his sidekick, Lee Cain, expunged from Downing Street, but at some personal cost. She has been painted as the needy, manipulative queen in Boris’s court – “Princess Nut Nut”, as the Cummings camp dubbed her – whose liberal views on trans rights or green issues will supposedly cost him seats. To her critics, she’s no innocent bystander in the war raging now around the prime minister, but an active combatant. “She toxifies pretty much every scenario she’s in, although the trouble is that she’s one of the most charming people that you’ll ever meet,” says a former adviser who worked closely with her.
Her supporters, however, see her as a victim of rank sexism and political infighting, a lightning rod for those who don’t dare attack the prime minister directly. “People are playing the girl not the ball, knowing she can’t defend herself,” says Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister who has been a friend since Symonds’s days as a special adviser to her then Whitehall department. “I also think it’s really patronising – almost as if it’s implying that Boris can’t make these decisions by himself.” Others wonder why Philip May, whose wife, Theresa, often used him as a sounding board, never attracted such criticism. “People are jealous of her because she had a successful career in politics before she was ever Boris’s girlfriend,” says another former minister. “She’s young, clever, a woman with opinions who isn’t afraid to voice them, and some people are looking for a convenient person to blame for decisions they don’t like.”
The irony is that, for months now, Westminster gossips have been speculating about the couple’s relationship. She was said to be spending more time at their south London home, away from the febrile atmosphere of Number 10; he was supposedly missing the calming influence of ex-wife Marina Wheeler. The journalist Tom Bower even argued in his new biography of Johnson that “if Marina had not terminated their marriage, his fling with Carrie would have abruptly ended”, just as previous affairs fizzled out. Some wondered if it was coincidence that as Wheeler embarked on a publicity tour for her new book this autumn, Symonds made a rare speaking appearance on camera with Johnson. Sitting cosily on a sofa, they took turns nominating their NHS heroes – the staff who saved his life in intensive care this April, the maternity team who helped her give birth two weeks later – for awards. She sounded every inch his equal, a rebuff to anyone who thought her influence waning. Well, nobody’s arguing that now.
Carrie Symonds was born in London in 1988, the child of an affair between the Independent newspaper lawyer Josephine McAffee and its journalist co-founder Matthew Symonds, who were married to other people at the time. She was raised by her mother in East Sheen, London. No wonder, perhaps, that Carrie wasn’t fazed by Johnson’s own romantic history.
Privately educated at Godolphin and Latymer school in west London, she did her degree in theatre studies and history of art at Warwick and initially thought of becoming an actor, auditioning for a part in the Keira Knightley blockbuster Atonement. But that didn’t work out, and after a starter job in marketing she landed a post running campaigns for the then new MP for Richmond, Zac Goldsmith (now environment minister).
Like her, Goldsmith is a passionate conservationist and committed Eurosceptic, and they remain close. She once tweeted: “Not sure if I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot.” From his office she moved swiftly to the press office at the Conservative party’s central headquarters, where she quickly worked her way up to head of broadcast. She came across as confident, smart, a tireless networker. “She’s always been unbelievably good company, good fun at parties,” says a former colleague.
Her political instincts are also acute. She has, according to one minister who worked closely with her, a “really good gut feeling for issues” and for the public mood. But if she excelled at high politics and at charming contacts, the drudge work of political backroom life seemed less to her taste. One Conservative party insider says her time at CCHQ was “much more about following her agenda, which was the agenda of the government, not the party. She’s someone who likes the profile that comes with the job but when it came to the hard work, not so much.” Another found her competitive, circumventing special advisers to get to ministers: “There was this need to be the closest person to them, the apple of everyone’s eye.” But she impressed enough during the 2015 election campaign to land a job as special adviser to the then culture secretary, John Whittingdale.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum she backed leave, not a career-enhancing move at the time. But it was while working with Vote Leave that she got to know what would become the critical post-Brexit triumvirate: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the campaign’s director, Dominic Cummings. (Ironically, she’s said to have been among those pushing for Cummings to be brought into Downing Street after the 2019 election, seeing him then as a potential ally.)
After the referendum, she worked briefly for local government secretary Sajid Javid before landing the director of communications job at Conservative party headquarters in 2017. Finally, she was at the heart of things, attending weekly meetings in Downing Street.
A prolific Instagrammer herself, she boosted CCHQ’s profile on social media, pushing issues close to her heart such as Gove’s efforts to take plastics out of the ocean. But soon, her relationship with Theresa May’s operation in Downing Street had soured. Her closeness to both Gove and Johnson raised suspicions, given they were making May’s life difficult over Brexit. Tongues began wagging in earnest when Johnson attended her 30th birthday party, dancing energetically to Abba. Before long, the rumours reached Wheeler, who ended her 25-year marriage to Johnson that summer.
Symonds, meanwhile, had left CCHQ, amid allegations that she had been challenged over her use of expense account taxis, for a job with the marine protection charity Oceana. By autumn, it was an open secret that she and Johnson were dating, and within months the relationship was official. When he ran for the leadership in 2019, the team nicknamed her “FLOTUK”, a play on the American abbreviation for first lady of the United States; she worked hard to bring younger female MPs on board the campaign. Yet even after she moved into Downing Street, following Johnson’s landslide victory in December, her position still seemed insecure.
During the campaign, neighbours had taped a screaming row between her and Johnson at her south London flat and handed the recording to the Guardian. The couple dismissed it as a romantic tiff, apparently triggered when he spilled red wine on the sofa, yet it triggered fresh rumours about strains on their relationship. Symonds, who sold the flat shortly afterwards, was clearly shaken by what she saw as an intrusion of her privacy. Yet in some ways it was a harbinger of the pressures of living “above the shop” in a public building such as Downing Street.
Johnson’s wider family remained wary of meeting her, protective of Wheeler and the four children of the marriage. The details of his divorce were still being thrashed out and, to top it all, Carrie was now pregnant, trying to hide the bump from photographers. A stressful situation, however, was about to get worse.
In April both she and Johnson came down with Covid-19; he was rushed to intensive care, leaving her fearing for his life. She gave birth to their son, Wilf, only a fortnight after Johnson left hospital, and then spent months trying to raise a small baby in a building convulsed by political crisis and infighting. It has, says a friend, been lonely at times. The texts she is accused of bombarding the prime minister with during the working day should perhaps be seen in that light.
“Nobody can understand what it’s like until you get there – it’s so far removed from anything else,” says Fiona Millar, who worked for Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, in No 10. “And it’s not the sort of place you can let off steam with your friends, because you can’t talk to anyone about what’s going on. It’s a pressure cooker.” The key, she argues, is to have a separate identity of one’s own; Cherie Blair continued working as a barrister, Samantha Cameron for the handbag firm Smythson. But Symonds, on maternity leave from Oceana and unable to host the usual charitable receptions during a pandemic, has struggled to define herself. She cannot return to her old spin doctor role, yet evidently finds it hard to let go. “All wives have opinions, but the difference here is that it’s so much more above the radar because of her relationships with journalists and others – she’s part of the mix,” says a Conservative former Downing Street staffer. “What would be hearsay to other wives is her first-hand experience.”
There has been talk of Johnson mysteriously reversing decisions in the evenings when he’s alone with Symonds in their flat. But this glosses over his longstanding tendency to duck arguments by just agreeing with everyone to their face, as well as a wider breakdown in the chain of command inside a curiously rudderless Downing Street. Insiders say that towards the end of Cummings and Cain’s time, aides were openly contradicting the prime minister’s instructions in meetings, while he sought to avoid taking sides between his advisers and his partner. “He’s not an idiot,” says one source. “He knows what’s going on but chooses to ignore some of it for an easier life. But when you’re prime minister, nothing is easy.”
Symonds’s influence over policy decisions is clearly sometimes overstated, either by those who underestimate the role played by elected MPs lobbying for change, or by those seeking someone to blame for Johnson’s apparent reversion to his socially liberal roots as he looks beyond Brexit. “He’s a one-nation Tory really. The idea that he’s done something on the environment now just because Carrie told him to – it’s ridiculous,” says one MP close to her. “She’s bright, she’s kind, and I suspect she’s deeply hurt by this.”
Yet when her own allies are bragging about how she worked with Johnson’s new spin doctor, Allegra Stratton, and head of policy, Munira Mirza, to tackle a “boys’ club” in No 10, it’s clear that at the very least she wants to be seen as influential. “She can’t on one hand say ‘it’s so sexist you’re talking about me in this way’ and on the other ‘I beat the Brexit boys’,” says another former colleague. It may be harder for Symonds than for previous prime ministerial partners to sit on her hands when things are patently going wrong inside Downing Street. But blurring the boundaries between elected power and unelected influence, between those who can be held publicly accountable for their decisions and those who can’t, has potentially serious consequences. Does the end really justify such unorthodox means?
Symonds was 19 and waiting for a night bus home from Fulham when a cabbie offered her a lift. She didn’t have enough money, but John Worboys said he’d take her anyway. When he offered her champagne, claiming to be celebrating a lottery win, she was suspicious and tipped it away. But she was eventually persuaded to take a few sips of vodka. After that, her memory is blurry, although she doesn’t believe he assaulted her. But she came forward when the police finally caught Worboys, the so-called “black cab rapist” thought to have drugged and attacked more than 100 women, and appealed for other potential victims to contact them. As she told the Daily Telegraph later: “I was definitely in a position of danger, in a situation where I was not in control and I will never know what really happened to me.”
Unsurprisingly, she was horrified when the Parole Board granted Worboys early release in 2018. She used her formidable PR skills to campaign publicly against the decision, taking time off CCHQ to fundraise for a judicial review of the decision brought by two of Worboys’s victims. For a young woman in politics to talk openly about such personal things was exceptionally brave. Yet given her role within the party, it put the justice secretary, David Gauke, and the head of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, in an awkward position. Hardwick was forced to resign when the decision was overturned at judicial review; Gauke subsequently overhauled the process for challenging parole decisions. Days after the election, the incoming Johnson government promised an end to the premature release of rapists and murderers.
Two years on, Hardwick – now a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London – has nothing but kind words for Symonds. “I admire what she did on the Worboys case a lot. I think it’s a good thing he’s still in prison, a good thing there’s an easier way to challenge parole decisions. It took courage and skill for Carrie Symonds and the other victims to win that case.”
But what happened next bothers him. “What becomes more complicated is the extent to which the individual case and experience starts to affect other criminal justice policy, on the basis that hard cases make bad law. If Carrie’s one of the advocates for tougher sentencing policy, that’s a perfectly legitimate public position to take, but I think it needs to be done out in the open.” Harwick didn’t realise at the time that Symonds was close to Johnson; he recalls a friendly government aide trying to give him “a sort of coded warning about what was going on” in the background of the case, which he didn’t understand. It was only when the relationship between them became public in the autumn that the penny dropped.
There is widespread relief, even admiration, among many Tories for whatever Carrie Symonds may have done to resolve the dysfunctional situation in Downing Street. “It’s all a bit unorthodox and not how things should be done, but it might be that for this administration she’s going to be quite useful,” says one former Downing Street staffer.
But, like Hardwick, some worry now about the implications of someone who isn’t answerable to party or public calling the shots. “Someone who is even less accountable than Dominic Cummings should not be the one who can take the decisions,” says a Tory insider. Others predict trouble ahead, pointing out that Stratton, Symonds and Mirza all have different agendas, which may clash in the absence of a clear lead from the prime minister. One early test of where power lies will be the coming cabinet reshuffle, with some MPs already concluding that befriending her is key to promotion.
As one Tory source groaned: “All the ambitious wives of chinless wonders are making a beeline for Carrie now.”