DAN HODGES: Britain votes for Prime Ministers – not their partners. Boris Johnson needs to get Carrie Symonds to back off
Back in June 2019 – when it became clear Boris was sailing to victory in the Tory leadership election, but there were serious divisions between his official campaign and allies of his partner Carrie Symonds – I wrote: ‘There cannot be two competing Boris campaigns. There cannot be two competing Boris Downing Streets.
And there cannot be two competing Boris administrations. At the moment there is Team Boris and there is Team Carrie. The next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is going to have to choose between them.’
Boris never chose. Which is why this morning his Government is eating itself alive.
Boris Johnson, pictured with his fiance Carrie Symonds, right, is at the centre of a scandal
Three political stories have dominated over the past week. Carrie has been at the heart of all of them
Over the past 48 hours, the focus has been on Dom Cummings. Allies of the Prime Minister have scrambled to portray him as an unguided missile, careening around Westminster, vaporising anything he comes into contact with. And he is. But he always was, and Boris knew that when he brought him into the heart of government.
What he isn’t, is a completely deranged fantasist. So we can be sure that the following passage of his explosive Friday afternoon statement is broadly true. ‘Last year there was a meeting between the PM, Cabinet Secretary, the Director of Communications and me regarding the leak of the decision for a further lockdown on the Friday evening immediately after the meeting in the Cabinet Room that made the decision (known in the media as “the Chatty Rat story”).
‘The Cabinet Secretary told the PM that the leak was neither me nor the then Director of Communications and that “all the evidence definitely leads to Henry Newman and others in that office, I’m just trying to get the communications data to prove it”. The PM was very upset about this. He said to me afterwards, “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie as they’re best friends… [pause] Perhaps we could get the Cabinet Secretary to stop the leak inquiry?” ’
Whether Newman is indeed the ‘Chatty Rat’ – he denies it – is irrelevant. Covid is the biggest single crisis to hit Britain since the war. The decision to lock down had the most profound impact on every man, woman and child in the country. But the Prime Minister was terrified of identifying who in his administration had leaked this momentous announcement for fear of upsetting his fiancee.
Dominic Cummings, pictured, who was at the heart of the PM’s Number 10 operation has since broken ranks
For the past few weeks the Government has been dogged by a series of supposed ‘lobbying scandals’. Cameron? Dyson? Amateurs. The real ‘lobbying’ scandal involves the influence the unelected, unaccountable – and according to her numerous allies, irreproachable – Ms Symonds has exerted over No 10 ever since the day she and Boris first walked into the building.
Three political stories have dominated over the past week. Carrie has been at the heart of all of them.
First, the schism between Boris and Cummings. Who was agitating hardest for that schism? Carrie.
Second, the decision to axe plans for live Downing Street media briefings, and dispense with the services of media chief Allegra Stratton. Who lobbied strongly for Stratton’s appointment, so that she could sideline the candidate preferred by Cummings and his team? Carrie. ‘Carrie basically used Allegra,’ a No 10 insider told me, ‘and then when she didn’t need her any more, she dumped her.’
Finally, and potentially most damaging, the growing questions surrounding the estimated £200,000 refurbishment of Downing Street, and the decision to fund it via contributions from Tory donors. Who oversaw this attempt to eradicate all vestiges of what Tatler was contemptuously briefed was ‘Theresa May’s John Lewis furniture nightmare’? Carrie.
And these stories represent the tip of the iceberg. Just before the Cummings statement dropped, I was halfway through writing a column about how Ms Symonds was pressing for the removal of Environment Secretary George Eustace – seen as being too close to the farmers and insufficiently robust on her cherished animal welfare issues. And how her closest friend – and recently appointed government adviser – Nimco Ali had launched an extraordinary public attack on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab for refusing to hold a meeting with her.
It’s an open secret within Westminster how Ms Symonds’s influence extends over government. As another No 10 insider told me: ‘It’s not that you get a phone call direct from her demanding something. What happens is Boris will suddenly turn up one morning and say, “Er, what are we doing about badgers?” It won’t be something he has any interest in. So we all know it comes from Carrie.’
Ministers attempt to appease her and her whims, because they know it’s the only way to keep their careers on track.
Journalists appease her for fear of being ostracised by the No 10 communications team she helped build. Or because they benefit personally from her briefings. Or because they fear the cabal of sycophants she surrounds herself with will turn on them, and issue one of their ritualistic denunciations of ‘sexism’. But worst of all is the way the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom continues to appease her.
The strength of Boris’s personal feelings for Ms Symonds are solely a matter for him and her. But his tolerance of the continuing mayhem and dysfunctionality that frame the perpetual Carrie Psychodrama have now become a national issue. Indeed – I normally hate this hyperbolic phrase – a national scandal.
People may have their views on Dom Cummings. But on this he is right: ‘It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.’
Until last week, I didn’t think Labour’s ‘sleaze’ attacks were having much impact. Primarily because the Greensill affair had not managed to lead Boris’s enemies directly to the door of No 10.
Now they’re standing on the doorstep, ringing the bell. And the person who has directed them there is Carrie Symonds.
Forget saccharine-coated quotes from friends about how much ‘Bozzie Bear’ needs his ‘Otter’. Britain needs a Prime Minister, and a functioning government.
In December 2019, the people handed Boris an overwhelming majority. But they did not hand it to his girlfriend. Carrie Symonds is elected by no one. Mandated by no one. Accountable to no one. Britain’s uncodified constitution may be opaque in some areas. But on this it’s pretty clear. We vote for Prime Ministers, not their partners.
If, as Ms Symonds’s cheerleaders tell us ad nauseam, she is ‘a sharp political operator in her own right’, fine. Then as I advocated a few months ago, she can do what all other sharp political operators do, and get a job in government. But until that happens, she needs to back off. And if she won’t, her fiance needs to take a moment out from his day job of running the UK to tell her to back off.
Team Carrie needs to disband. The ‘friends’ need to go. The unofficial press operation needs to go. The lobbying on policy, appointments and strategy needs to stop. And the next roll of wallpaper needs to be paid for out of her own pocket, not from some Tory fat cat. Because if these things don’t happen, then it won’t be Ms Symonds who ultimately pays the price. The nation will.
Back in 2019, I said the Prime Minister had to choose between his team and Team Carrie. Today the choice is even starker. What does Boris care about most? His fiancee? Or his country?
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