Will Carrie Symonds save Boris or ruin him? DAN HODGES says if the future is all about wokery he’s doomed. But SARAH SANDS argues death of the lads club will unleash the PM
- Dan Hodges says a spectacular coup has mounted at the heart of Government
- Sarah Sands says PM is listening to Carrie Symonds and a new No10 era begins
- Not since Henry VIII has there been such a public row over influence and power
By Dan Hodges
The Dom Cummings era is over,’ the Minister told me. ‘But if we’re going to replace it with the Carrie Symonds era, we’re f*****. The environment. Transgender rights. If that’s what we’re going to be about, our coalition is going to fall apart. It’s not what our voters want to hear. We’re going to lose a lot of seats.’
To people watching from beyond the Plexiglass screen encasing Britain’s political class, the events of the past few days looked like a bad reality TV show. In fact, it’s looked like that to those on the inside. ‘I feel as if I’ve been watching an episode of Jeremy Kyle,’ one distraught Tory MP complained to me.
But it’s way more serious than that. The week-long orgy of infighting that resulted in the Prime Minister’s inner circle defenestrating itself may have appeared compelling but superficial – but in reality, British politics has just been turned on its head.
The Carrie Coup was clinical and ruthless. According to No 10 insiders, after months of drift, Boris’s senior aides gave him a blueprint for the reorganisation of his No 10 operation. Pictured: Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds thank NHS frontline staff
The Brexiteers who have controlled the political agenda since 2016 have been unceremoniously evicted from Downing Street. The strategy that brought Boris his stunning 80-seat majority less than 12 months ago has been ditched. In short, a spectacular coup has been mounted at the heart of Government – one led not by Cabinet Ministers or MPs, but by the Prime Minister’s own partner.
The Carrie Coup was clinical and ruthless. According to No 10 insiders, after months of drift, Boris’s senior aides gave him a blueprint for the reorganisation of his No 10 operation. At dinner over Chequers three weeks ago, it was signed off. But once the guests had departed, Ms Symonds tore it apart. Boris meekly binned the plan.
So his senior staff put forward an alternative proposal. A reshuffling of his top team that would have seen his communications director Lee Cain appointed chief of staff. The plan was approved by the current chief of staff Ed Lister, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Boris’s most influential adviser Dom Cummings. A verbal offer of the post was made to Cain by Boris over lunch last Sunday.
At which point, Symonds moved again. In concert with some of her media lapdogs, a briefing operation was launched against Cain’s appointment. Allies of close friend Michael Gove were elicited to help spread concerns about Cain’s suitability for the role.
Simultaneously, a separate briefing operation was mounted among Tory MPs, one which included allegations Cain was suffering from ‘stress’.
In 72 hours he was gone, Cummings was gone and the press were being told a new era was beginning, one in which Boris’s priorities would be ‘climate, girls and women’s welfare and infrastructure’.
Since Boris first began his campaign for the leadership, Symonds has been a divisive figure. Back in June 2019, I wrote how splits were emerging between Boris’s official campaign team and ‘Team Carrie, the informal collective of activists, political aides and friends who surround his 32-year-old girlfriend, and are currently running their own independent operation to guide Boris to power’. I was told I was I was overstating her influence. No one is saying that now.
Since Boris first began his campaign for the leadership, Symonds (pictured in July 2019) has been a divisive figure
Symonds’s allies – who to be fair, are numerous – say she is a seasoned communications professional in her own right, and someone who gives Boris much needed counsel. ‘She’s got great journalistic contacts and political judgment,’ one Westminster insider told me. ‘And those people that have worked closest with Carrie remain loyal.’
They also claim she has regularly been the subject of unscrupulous and vindictive briefings from those who resent her political ascendency and liberal world view.
An example of this was provided this week when her enemies began circulating a rumour she had once been sacked from a journalism job she held because she was insufficiently competent. But people working on the paper at the time confirmed to me her work was good, and she had simply left to pursue another role.
But the issue of Symonds’s professionalism is irrelevant. What matters is the influence she is now exerting at the heart of the British Government, and what that will mean for Boris, his party, and the country he leads.
Since the Election, No 10 has become increasingly dysfunctional. It lost control of the Covid crisis. An aggressive and macho culture alienated Ministers, journalists and MPs. There has been no clarity over what will replace Brexit delivery as the Government’s mission statement.
But the team that has been turfed out by the Prime Minister’s fiancee is the one that triumphed in the Brexit referendum, guided Boris to the premiership and secured him a landslide Election victory. This morning there is little sense of who or what will replace them.
It can’t be Carrie. Until now, she and her allies have been having their cake and eating it. When it has suited them, they have talked up her influence, pointing to areas where she has successfully lobbied Boris or nudged along the Government’s agenda. And then when this influence has become the subject of scrutiny, they have cried foul, citing sexism or invoking the right of the Prime Minister’s partner to remain out of political bounds.
The issue of Symonds’s professionalism is irrelevant. What matters is the influence she is now exerting at the heart of the British Government, and what that will mean for Boris, his party, and the country he leads. Pictured in March
The events of the past week mean her role at the heart of Boris’s administration needs to be assessed honestly and candidly. Previous political spouses have tendered general advice and support. But that’s not what has happened in this instance.
The duly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom took a political decision. Whether it was correct or incorrect is beside the point. It was his decision to take. But his partner decided she was within her rights to oppose it. Then when she didn’t get her way, she launched a freelance briefing operation against it. As a result of which, in the midst of a global pandemic and Brexit negotiations, the British Government was plunged into chaos. This is how a banana republic operates, not a mature Western democracy.
It’s true that unelected officials have had a major role in the direction of Government. Cummings is a classic example. But those officials were hired on their merits – real or imagined. They were appointed to specific roles, and to fulfil clear objectives. Symonds has not. She has no role, objective or remit. Her presence in No 10 is solely a product of the fact she happened to be involved in a romantic relationship with the current Prime Minister when his predecessor resigned.
But the crucial issue is this. Ever since the Election, Boris has appeared a bystander to his own premiership. As I’ve written repeatedly, speak to a Cabinet Minister, MP or senior adviser and you will be told what Rishi wants, what Michael wants, what Dom wants. What Carrie wants. What Boris wants never features.
Is it ever going to feature? Wind farms. Trans rights. Animal welfare. Does anybody seriously thinks these are the issues that drive Johnson?
More importantly, does anyone seriously think these are the issues that drive the millions of people who tore down Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ to cross over to the Conservative Party for the first time in their lives? ‘Carrie’s hug- a-fish agenda won’t cut it,’ said a worried Minister.
This morning there is a vacuum at the heart of Government. And it cannot be filled by the Prime Minister’s fiancee. It can only be filled by the Prime Minister himself. As one Cabinet Minister explained: ‘The problem is, Dom and Lee could be sacked, but Carrie can’t. So if we get to the point people think she has to go, the only thing we can do is get rid of Boris himself.’
The Cummings era is over. Boris is damaged. Many believe he won’t survive the era of Carrie Symonds.
By Sarah Sands
Not since Henry VIII has there been such a public row over the influence and power of consorts and advisers. At the centre is Carrie Symonds, likened by some to Anne Boleyn: capricious, demanding and overwrought. In other words, it is the old story: cherchez la femme.
The rants and tears that came from Dominic Cummings’s team, followed by an operatic walk-out by their leader, suggests the drama queens were not all in the No 10 flat.
I asked one of the enraged Vote Leave supporters what they thought had happened. The message came back: ‘Jumped-up women!’
The second point to make is that Carrie unquestionably has her fiance’s best interests at heart. Pictured with Boris Johnson in September 2019
This has become something of a theme. The broadcaster Andrew Neil spoke of what he curiously called Boris Johnson’s ‘bidie in’ – a Scottish term for unmarried, live-in partner. The implication is that the PM’s fiancee is using pillow talk to control policy, and that no good can come of it.
First, let’s remember that Symonds is a former director of communications for the Tory Party. She is extremely well connected and understands the value of clear messaging. According to her supporters, she has kept her head down and held her tongue, but MPs wanted her to intervene after the shambles of the past months.
John Whittingdale, the Brexiteer Tory MP for whom Carrie once worked, says: ‘She is extremely able, enormously likeable, fiercely loyal and dedicated.’
The second point to make is that Carrie unquestionably has her fiance’s best interests at heart. She felt he was not being well served and last week was the moment she stepped in, warning Boris against making Lee Cain his chief of staff.
All hell broke loose and steel entered the PM’s soul. Why was his team squabbling over jobs during a pandemic and with Brexit negotiations at a critical stage? And why was his team asking him to choose between them and the mother of his child?
Meanwhile, the ‘jumped-up women’ had formed an allegiance. Enter Allegra Stratton, the new No 10 press secretary. Her role was dreamed up by Cummings and Cain to control the political lobby but the job took on a life of its own. Stratton insisted on having direct access to the PM so she could reflect his views rather than what Cummings and Cain wanted him to believe. At this point, Cain turned against her.
Enter Allegra Stratton, the new No 10 press secretary. Her role was dreamed up by Cummings and Cain to control the political lobby but the job took on a life of its own
But Symonds saw Stratton as a huge asset. The former ITV, BBC and Guardian journalist had been working as the Treasury’s director of communications and had refashioned Rishi Sunak’s image brilliantly, making this little-known Treasury nerd seem cool and connected. Symonds yearned for the same magic touch for Boris.
A third ‘jumped-up woman’ stepped forward: the highly regarded Downing Street policy adviser Munira Mirza. This trio –who combine conviction with diplomacy – are part of what has been sneeringly described as a Downing Street Sisterhood.
Stratton has been painted as a Notting Hill metropolitan, but the truth is she joined the Boris team having been inspired by its agenda of wanting to level up society. Significantly, Symonds made sure Stratton was paid in line with the men. But she did not intervene further, apart from wanting to ensure Stratton had support, knowing how lonely it can be as a woman in the spotlight.
What are the other tensions between this latterday Anne Boleyn and Cummings, by implication a modern version of Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell? Symonds, 32, shares the progressive outlook of her generation. She is passionate about the environment and she is pro trans rights. She has her eye on the new Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration and wants a sympathetic exchange at next year’s G7 Summit, hosted in the UK.
She is ‘a stonking Brexiteer’ but cannot understand why people are still fighting an old war. As one of her supporters stresses: ‘Get it done and move on.’ For Symonds, next year should be about jobs, trade, the environment and saving the Union. That’s her brand of Conservatism.
By contrast, say her friends, Cain and Cummings were ‘just wandering around with a box of matches – they are not even Conservatives’.
One lesson from the Tudors is that it’s a mistake for advisers to regard themselves as indispensable. Symonds’s confidante says: ‘Did they honestly think Boris was going to dump Carrie, out of loyalty to Lee Cain? She is his bride- to-be, smart, beautiful and caring about what happens to him.’
Understandably, given that she was eventually executed, Symonds’s friends don’t compare her to Anne Boleyn but to her successor in Henry VIII’s bed. ‘Carrie is Jane Seymour – she is going to win out.’
One cannot help but admire the sheer creative destruction of Cummings’s (pictured outside his north London home on Saturday) mind. The great disruptor joined forces with Boris Johnson, the Lord of Misrule, and they changed the course of British history
I have personal experience of Cain, or ‘Caino’ as he likes to be called. When I edited the Today programme on Radio 4, I felt the chill of the self-styled ‘Lad’s Club’. It began on election night. I texted his team to congratulate them on their extraordinary 80-seat majority and ask which Minister would be interviewed on the programme. I hoped – and expected – it might be Boris himself, wreathed in victory. ‘No one,’ flashed the response. I frowned and texted back: ‘How is the spirit of healing going?’ A subsequent boycott of the Today programme by Ministers lasted from that moment until March – although it was never spelt out and never officially ended. It was a threat hanging over us.
There were briefings that the programme was not relevant any more because Cummings did not listen to it. Cummings himself explained to me the relationship would change when he heard from other people that the programme had changed. Cain, his enforcer, said that we had not shown sufficient remorse for misjudging the EU referendum. Today has always been at the centre of controversies but I tried to explain to Cain that we were neither in the ranks of believers or unbelievers. We were the news. Cain was implacable.
One cannot help but admire the sheer creative destruction of Cummings’s mind. The great disruptor joined forces with Boris Johnson, the Lord of Misrule, and they changed the course of British history.
By contrast, say her friends, Cain and Cummings (pictured in 2019) were ‘just wandering around with a box of matches – they are not even Conservatives’
But with Brexit accomplished, it became a question of who rules? Cummings and his team may have been political talismans and Boris owed his Prime Ministership to them but he did not need them any more. The debt is now paid.
A defining characteristic of leadership is ruthlessness. Johnson is ready to enter his second phase. As London mayor, he moved from turmoil to order. It was a pattern he learned from the Classics. First the popular wars, then the years of statesmanship and peace.
There is now talk of a ‘softening’ of government – in other words, more ‘female-friendly’. I reckon the departure of the Lad’s Club signals order rather than softness.
Johnson has always been more at ease in the company of women. His relationship with his mother is close. He took his intellectual position on Brexit from his then wife Marina Wheeler.
Now he is listening to Carrie Symonds. A new No10 era begins.