Carrie Symonds may have clambered out of the bear pit, but she’s just wandered into the jungle. In January, the fiancée of Prime Minister Boris Johnson—and onetime P.R. chief for the Conservative Party—landed a cushy new role as communications director for the Aspinall Foundation, a conservation charity best known for its two zoos down in Kent. It’s a plum role in an organization awash with old pals, soft-power doyens, and Tory backslappers. But it also serves a happy triple purpose for the country’s First Couple.
First: to provide a dual income to a threadbare Downing Street in the face of a reported $275,000 refurbishment and the loss of the P.M.’s private income. (Money is apparently so tight over at HQ that Johnson—the divorcé whose hungry offspring litter West London—allegedly planned to set up a mysterious donor fund just to keep the household in gold-leafed wallpaper. But we’ll get to that later.)
Second: it will permit Symonds some respite from the zoo of No. 10—a warren of narrow corridors, low ceilings, and poky offices, where silverbacks and snakes preen, leak, and squabble, and everyone treats her like a fox in the henhouse. (Sumatran tigers are nothing compared with a special adviser scorned.)
Third: it will give her image a gentle airbrushing. The Aspinall Foundation is generally well regarded, and sits at the more glamorous, genteel end of the charity spectrum—black-tie dos, high-profile donors, lion cubs on the Insta stories. After all, you can’t look bad taking care of animals. Can you?
Well, that depends. Within weeks of Symonds’s installation, the independent Charity Commission announced a poker-hot probe into the Aspinall Foundation’s “financial management and wider governance,” with eyebrows raised in particular over Chairman Damian Aspinall’s cozy personal setup.
Damian is the son of John “Aspers” Aspinall, the late, controversial founder of the charity, whose private Mayfair casino, the Clermont Club, cleaned out most of the landed gentry throughout the 1960s. Long a second home for England’s old-money rakes, the Clermont has five dukes, five marquesses, and 20 earls in its 600-strong membership, while chum Mark Birley installed aristo-honeypot Annabel’s in the basement below.
By the 1970s, however, Aspinall was plowing most of his earnings into Howletts and Port Lympne—two crumbling country estates he hoped to turn into zoos. The parks were dogged by controversies, but over the decades Aspinall accrued a grudging respect from conservationists worldwide, in particular for his work around captive breeding.
The independent Charity Commission announced a poker-hot probe into the Aspinall Foundation’s “financial management and wider governance.”
Aspinall died in 2000, and Damian now has the top job—a role which, though rigorous, is not without its perks. The chairman and his family rent their handsome, 30-room Georgian pile in Kent from the charity for a piffling $3,500 a month (by contrast, luxury tree houses at Port Lympne go for $685 a night), while Aspinall’s wife, Victoria, has received $85,000 for interior-design work from the foundation in recent years. At the same time, great sums were apparently forked out by the charity to Aspinall over a number of years—more than $150,000 in 2019, $120,000 in 2018, $80,000 in 2017, and so on—though the foundation told the Daily Mail that these have all been repaid in full.
These irregularities caught the attention of the Powers That Be in February, prompting a statement from Symonds herself: “As is the case across the charity sector, the Aspinall Foundation is in regular dialogue with the Charity Commission regarding its governance and associated matters,” she said in her role as spokesperson. “[It] is fully aware of its legal obligations and remains committed to ensuring best practice compliance.”
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the foundation’s board of trustees began an independent investigation into its own affairs. “No doubt there have been governance process shortcomings,” one trustee told the Daily Mail. “We have [therefore] engaged a serious lawyer to conduct a thorough review.” Led by Caroline Russell, an expert on trustee disputes and Charity Commission issues for the law firm Girlings, the audit will now ask tricky questions of the board itself—and, in the process, shine a floodlight on the uncomfortably comfy nexus of its members.
Among the six Aspinall trustees sit several pillars of the Hertford Street set—a clubby cluster that is, in many ways, the direct descendent of the Clermont. There’s Ben Goldsmith (the financier son of Sir Jimmy Goldsmith—John Aspinall’s old gambling chum—and a sustainability czar); his half-brother Robin Birley (son of Annabel’s founder Mark Birley, and the man behind its spiritual sequel, 5 Hertford Street); and Charles Filmer, a financial adviser who enjoys a long association with Clan Goldsmith.
There are close connections with Downing Street, too. Both Goldsmith and Birley are noted Tory donors—and backers of Boris Johnson, in particular—while former Aspinall Foundation trustees include Ben’s older brother, Zac Goldsmith, a government minister and former Conservative M.P., who is said to be close friends with Symonds.
The Daily Mail even claims that Zac was involved in conversations to get party donors to foot the bill for the expensive refit at Downing Street. The mooted plans would have seen the family apartment above No. 10 transformed, for all intents and purposes, into a mini Hertford Street, under the guidance of society designer Lulu Lytle: all decadent wallpaper, eclectic upholstery, and country-house maximalism. (After a ministerial outrage, the idea that Symonds might use potential election funds to find the perfect rattan side table jarred. The money has now been passed back to its multi-millionaire donors. So, for now, the apartments remains—horror of horrors—in the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” left by Theresa May. )
The chairman and his family rent their handsome, 30-room Georgian pile from the charity for a piffling $3,500 a month.
With the inquiry underway, Russell will want to ascertain whether the board can really do its job: namely, the proper investigation of an old pal. Awkward questions will also be asked of the foundation’s newish managing director, Tony Kelly, a former gambling executive who has reportedly received an annual income equivalent to $313,000 at a time when the wider charity has required bridging loans to survive the pandemic. Equally, a question mark now hangs over an annual pension of about $41,000 paid via a subsidiary of the foundation to Lady Sarah Aspinall, Damian’s stepmother, apparently for historic-gardening work. (Lady Sarah was the head gardener for many years.)
And the Daily Mail has raised its eyebrows at some hefty sums forked out for “accounting services” to a Mayfair-based financial firm of which Filmer—who sits on the charity’s board—is also a director. The general sense is that, for a tax-exempt charity, which is bound by strict rules around who can benefit from its activities and how, it’s all a bit too chummy.
The Aspinall Foundation does remarkable work with animals, and just last month rewilded two cheetahs, born in Kent, into the South African savannah. But with investigators circling, Symonds must now hope the zoo does not become a circus.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL