It wasn’t just booing. It was booing from some of a highly selected demographic. For Carrie Johnson’s return to public duties for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee thanksgiving service last week, it was almost as if she were back in her role as director of communications at the Conservative Party and had commissioned a focus group.
“Please gather the type of person who waits for hours on cold London pavements to ensure they are front row for a staged set piece of royal pomp: traditional, loyal, and obsessed sometimes to the point of fanaticism with the patriotic and righteous order of things.”
In short, conservatives with a small c. Sure Carrie is used to booing: anywhere a senior politician of any stripe goes in public, there is bound to be heckling. Standing at the side of Conservative politicians on a walkabout and absorbing the flak of troublemakers used to be her professional job before it was her personal one. But that wasn’t this crowd: their favored medium of expression is a souvenir flag. These people were boo-bashful, and yet they booed.
For those few seconds between exiting the car and walking up the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral with her husband, the prime minister, it was as if Carrie were finally out and taking in the political weather after a period of privacy following the birth of the couple’s second baby five months ago.
The occasion to praise the qualities of the Queen — dignity, modesty, service — was throwing those of Johnson’s premiership into stark relief, for the nation, for Conservative MPs, and for her. This ceremony was to mark the upholding of values of which partygate was a violation. The volatile mix of cheers and jeers Carrie heard meant it was less of a surprise for her when four days later, Johnson faced a vote of no confidence from those in his parliamentary party. The prime minister survived the secret ballot on his leadership, winning more than the requisite 180 votes out of 359 Conservative MPs.
As they walked up the steps of St Paul’s, Carrie at 34 in a red fitted dress, Boris at 57 in the kind of tailcoat he has been buttoned into since Eton and the Bullingdon Club, it was as if they were entering church for a kind of second wedding, within days of the first anniversary of their real one.
It was almost as if she were back in her role as director of communications at the Conservative Party and had commissioned a focus group.
There is a renegotiation that is necessitated between a couple when the terms of their early romance, with power and popularity in the ascendancy, abruptly change. A new kind of contract has to be drawn up as power, popularity and other allies seep away to reveal something tougher and lonelier.
On those steps, as the crowd increased its noise, the pair held hands and turned to give each other a smile, a saving of professional and private face. We know the job spec of a political spouse in getting their partner elected: show up, shore up, shut up. But what about on the other side of that arc?
To answer this the Johnsons actually find their closest precedent in Gordon and Sarah Brown: an unlikely comparison in most ways for both parties, diametrically opposite politically and temperamentally. But the answer to this question divides political spouses during the difficult downward trajectories into two camps, the reluctant relieved and the professional strategists.
Carrie belongs firmly to the second. The professional strategist spouses, such as Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, take it harder and fight harder during their partner’s demise, but are also more likely, and this is a Shakespearean twist, to be partly the cause of it themselves (“Cheriegate” anyone?).
Recently Carrie was back in the headlines over accusations that she may have been a factor in the departure of the head housekeeper at Chequers, an allegation that a spokesman for the Johnsons denies.
Carrie has been largely absent from public life since the birth of Romy in December, and the news in January that someone in Johnson’s immediate family had a case of Covid, which unconfirmed rumors suggest was their newborn daughter.
It could be Carrie deliberately lying low to escape the heat of partygate in which she was so inextricably linked, although other parents with a two-year-old and a five-month-old don’t need a national scandal to not leave the house so much.
However, the communications revealed by partygate show yet again how closely involved her life has been with her husband’s political work. We know that Johnson and Carrie’s relationship first intensified around Carrie’s 30th birthday, at a party thrown for Carrie in the grand north London home of Simone Finn, a businesswoman, Conservative politician and former girlfriend of Michael Gove. Baroness Finn has been the Downing Street deputy chief of staff since February 2021.
In a neat symmetrical bookending, it is a party thrown for Boris’s 56th birthday that now is another problem for his political future. The alleged gathering, uninvestigated by the Sue Gray report, may have been hosted by Carrie in their flat at No 11 Downing Street in June 2020, when that would have been illegal.
The Daily Telegraph reported a text exchange between Carrie and an aide as Boris was heading to the flat, where she replied, “Great. I am here already with The Gays,” which is understood to be an affectionate term for her gay male friends, possibly Tory staffers.
Contrast this merging of governmental work and pleasure with those spouses who saw politics as a problem, forcing the mothballing of their careers and homes. Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir, Becoming, that as a lawyer in Chicago she gave her blessing to Barack’s run at president not fully realizing the consequences: “I supported him in campaigning, but I also felt certain he wouldn’t make it all the way.” She endured years of politicking on sufferance and their exit from the White House to the world of podcasts was something of a liberation.
“I was dancing around our kitchen, had a beer and a few rollies,” Samantha Cameron said of her returning to the Downing Street flat to clear out the family’s belongings after her husband’s sudden decision to quit in light of the Brexit referendum in 2016. While David may have been reeling, Samantha talked of her relief of getting her children out of Westminster before they hit their teens.
The communications revealed by partygate show yet again how closely involved her life has been with her husband’s political work.
In his memoir, For the Record, David Cameron said that pre-referendum stress meant he and Samantha “had both started smoking again”. But after quitting Downing Street David recalled, in a joint appearance with his wife on This Morning, “I can’t go back into that house [Downing Street], I can’t do that,” so he sent in Samantha, who apparently was not quite so grief-stricken.
David’s failed political dream was the ashes from which her career could be reborn: the chance for her to focus on her long-postponed dream to launch her own fashion brand, Cefinn, which has limped through the pandemic sustaining serious losses.
It is unrecorded if or how Melania Trump supported her husband through his turbulent presidency other than the wearing of her infamous jacket with the message “I really don’t care, do you?” and the fact that Donald Trump’s third marriage survives.
It’s not pleasant to linger for too long on the revelations of Tony Blair’s memoir, in which he described how at key moments in his political career he would “devour” Cherie’s New Labour love in the marital bed, as if he were a political Roomba that needed plugging into the mains for a recharge.
“That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me; made me feel that what I was about to do was right,” Blair wrote. “I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power to cope with what lay ahead.”
But it is really Sarah Brown who is in unlikely ways closest to Carrie. Both were seasoned political PR operatives before they met their spouse, although Sarah was at the time both older and higher status, both spouses arrived after long and tiring reigns in government by their respective parties.
The company Sarah founded, Hobsbawm Macaulay, had as its client the Labour Party just as Carrie worked in communications for the Conservatives. Both their spouses had character flaws — but opposite ones: Boris incontinent and silly and Gordon austere and angry — that would prove near-impossible PR projects for their wives. According to Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge in the book Brown at Ten, Sarah was “a forceful voice in encouraging him to stay on until the very end”.
The career setbacks of their spouses offer no release for these women, because they also represent a failure of their most committed campaign. In Sarah Brown’s memoir, Behind the Black Door, she described the increasingly doom-laden atmosphere at Downing Street as Gordon’s star fell, and how she would seek out her husband just to stand with him for a few seconds in empty corridors, as a moment of solace for him before he entered roomfuls of hostile colleagues or journalists.
However, she also blamed herself. In an interview with the Daily Mail to launch her book, Sarah said her big regret is that she did not do enough to help Gordon with the most important fight of his political life. “The one thing that I could have done to make a difference,” she wrote, “was to be more vocal.”
Carrie won’t have had that regret as she sat listening to the St Paul’s service for the Queen, whose trademark MO is staying shtoom in times of difficulty. So far supporters and critics of the Johnsons agree that there would be little advantage to Boris in Carrie speaking up on his behalf.
Helen Rumbelow is a political correspondent for The Times of London