Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, recently took a job as the communications director of the Aspinall Foundation, a charity operating two animal parks in Britain. You would imagine that her appointment was a no-brainer. After all, this is the woman accused of having a central role in running the country. Realistically, there can’t be a huge difference between covertly dictating Conservative policy and doing P.R. for a zoo.
Officially, Symonds has no involvement whatsoever with the government. True, she used to be head of communications for the Conservative Party—indeed, she found her start operating as one of its press officers a decade ago—but officials are adamant that this is where her influence ends. “The prime minister’s fiancée is on maternity leave,” chided the prime minister’s press secretary this week. “She’s raising their son, Wilf.”
Nevertheless, rumors persist that Symonds’s oar remains firmly wedged into the government’s side, something that is causing waves of discontent across Westminster. Most recently, Michael Gove—the man charged with the Sisyphean task of overseeing the country’s new relationship with post-Brexit Europe—found himself sidelined by Johnson. Gove was sacrificed to stop Lord Frost, a Johnson loyalist who had previously acted as the government’s Brexit negotiator, from throwing a tantrum about Symonds’s perceived influence.
There can’t be a huge difference between covertly dictating Conservative policy and doing P.R. for a zoo.
The story behind this is infuriatingly juvenile, but here we go nevertheless. Johnson recently hired Baroness Finn as his deputy chief of staff, and Henry Newman as a senior adviser. Both are close friends of Symonds’s—Finn threw her 30th-birthday party two years ago—and it was assumed that they had been employed at her behest. However, Frost reportedly threatened to resign at the indignity of it all, and could only be talked down by the promise of Gove’s job, according to The Times of London.
Additionally, an aide by the name of Oliver Lewis quit last week because Symonds told her boyfriend that he’d been leaking stories to the press, according to The Times. Luckily this is definitely the most important thing happening in Britain right now, so it absolutely doesn’t feel like a catastrophic waste of everyone’s energy.
To underline the strife of it all, the calls of cronyism have started to come from inside the henhouse. The Bow Group, a think tank whose members include Conservative M.P.’s, has demanded an independent inquiry into Symonds’s powers. “Consistent reports in the press suggest that Ms. Symonds is taking a central role in running the country, without any authority or accountability to do so,” said Chairman Ben Harris-Quinney. “She has not been elected, she has not been appointed, she holds no legal or constitutional powers.”
An aide by the name of Oliver Lewis quit last week because Symonds told her boyfriend that he’d been leaking stories to the press.
It’s hard to know what to believe, since the Conservative government is effectively just a warren of tribal cliques prone to slinging mud at one another in the form of anonymous leaks to the press. This was apparent in November, when longtime Johnson Svengali Dominic Cummings—a man with such an iron grip on the prime minister that he was thought to be the architect of everything from Brexit to much of the U.K.’s coronavirus response—was reportedly forced out of his job (accounts differ) after becoming embroiled in a behind-the-scenes turf war with Symonds, according to the Financial Times. An ally told the press that she was “on the side of the angels.” Cummings’s team, meanwhile, took to labeling her “Princess Nut Nut,” according to the Daily Mail.
Another casualty of the briefing wars is Symonds’s beloved Jack Russell cross, Dilyn. An unnamed insider recently gave a virulent anti-Dilyn rundown to the press, telling horror stories about his propensity for chewing government-owned furniture and mounting a stool made from the foot of an elephant that had been shot by Theodore Roosevelt. And—in one especially grievous breach of protocol—cocking a leg over an adviser’s handbag. At one point, the insider claims, Johnson became so incensed by Dilyn’s behavior that he cried, “Someone please shoot that fucking dog!,” at nobody in particular. Shortly after the publication of this detail, a chastened Johnson was photographed jogging with Dilyn.
Defenders of Symonds’s have now pointed out that spouses of all stripes often act as informal counsels and that given her previous roles working for the party, she is better situated than most to offer some perspective to her husband in this time of great strain. Opposing sources, on the other hand, paint her as nothing less than a Lady Macbeth. “It’s a complete Carrie takeover,” sighed one.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL