LONDON — Of all of the unsavory moral questions swirling round Prime Minister Boris Johnson nowadays, the one which has caught is how he paid for the expensive makeover of his condo in Downing Avenue. And it has put his 33-year-old fiancée, Carrie Symonds, underneath a very scorching highlight.
Mr. Johnson has been accused in information reviews of secretly utilizing funds from a Conservative Occasion donor to complement his public funds for redecorating the condo — a cost that, though Mr. Johnson says he has repaid the cash, has prompted an investigation by Britain’s Electoral Fee. However it’s Ms. Symonds and her purportedly costly style in wallpaper and designer furnishings that has turn out to be a operating theme on social media and in British tabloids.
“#CarrieAntoinette” is trending as a Twitter hashtag, whereas the chief of the Labour Occasion, Keir Starmer, had himself photographed learning wallpaper on the British division retailer John Lewis — a labored stunt meant to make mild of reviews that Ms. Symonds derided the Downing Avenue décor left by Mr. Johnson’s no-nonsense predecessor, Theresa Could, as a “John Lewis furnishings nightmare.”
By no means thoughts that Ms. Symonds has not truly been quoted saying something about John Lewis. The reference, in a profile of her in Tatler journal, is attributed to an unnamed one who as soon as visited her within the condo. Tatler did report that Ms. Symonds oversaw the renovation challenge, and her involvement means she, too, might have to show over proof to the Electoral Fee.
For Ms. Symonds, a former Conservative Occasion communications chief who now works for an animal-rights group, it’s the newest trial in a yr overstuffed with dramatics: the near-fatal sickness of Mr. Johnson after he contracted the coronavirus; the start of their son, Wilfred; and the bitter purging of Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, by which she is reported to have performed a behind-the-scenes position.
All of it has put Ms. Symonds on the coronary heart of a well-known narrative, one replete with sexism and double requirements: the greedy, manipulative politician’s accomplice. She joins a parade of ladies, from Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair, the spouse of Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose murmurings to their males had been the topic of fevered suspicion.
The truth that her relationship with Mr. Johnson coincided with the breakup of his 25-year marriage, and that she grew to become the primary single accomplice to maneuver into Downing Avenue, solely provides to Ms. Symonds’ tabloid portrayal as a libertine Woman Macbeth or an upwardly cellular Marie Antoinette — select your cliché.
“The outsized fascination with Carrie Symonds’ position within the prime minister’s circle displays outdated sexist tropes that regard girls in positions of affect as inherently devious,” mentioned Sophia Gaston, director of the British International Coverage Group and a analysis fellow on the London College of Economics.
Her defenders say that as an achieved political participant in her personal proper, Ms. Symonds has no much less proper to supply recommendation to the prime minister than every other unpaid adviser — and he could be clever to take it.
And but, others say, there are respectable inquiries to ask about Ms. Symonds’ affect, which works past the information media’s obsessive concentrate on dwelling enhancements at Downing Avenue. Her ardent protection of animal rights was reported to have contributed to the federal government’s determination to halt a cull of badgers in Derbyshire, which contradicted the recommendation of scientists and veterinarians.
Associates of Ms. Symonds have been put in in key positions in Downing Avenue and, within the telling of Mr. Cummings, protected by her even after proof of wrongdoing. On his weblog, he claimed that Mr. Johnson wished to close down a leak investigation after it grew to become clear that the perpetrator was Henry Newman, a detailed adviser to Ms. Symonds.
Mr. Cummings quoted Mr. Johnson as saying to him, “If Newman is confirmed because the leaker, then I must fireplace him, and this may trigger me very critical issues with Carrie, as they’re greatest associates.”
Downing Avenue has denied that Mr. Johnson tried to close down the investigation, but it surely didn’t remark about Ms. Symonds’ position.
Her defenders say she has a savvy political sense and will effectively have aspired to a seat in Parliament if she hadn’t begun a relationship with Mr. Johnson. To the extent that she is giving him recommendation, some say, it’s useful: slicing free Mr. Cummings and different hard-core Brexiteers softened the prime minister’s picture and improved his recognition earlier than the latest ethics points pulled him again to his extra acquainted position as a political scalawag.
“She was implausible — she could be very loyal and was massively supportive,” mentioned John Whittingdale, a former tradition secretary for whom Ms. Symonds served as a particular adviser. He described her as “a strongly dedicated Conservative” and a “very robust Brexit supporter” at a time when that was a much less widespread place.
“The people who find themselves attacking Carrie clearly see a route to break the prime minister by attacking her,” he mentioned.
Ms. Symonds labors underneath a number of handicaps, considered one of which is the shortage of a job description for a major minister’s accomplice. The position has no constitutional standing, and in contrast to that of first woman in the USA, little administrative help. Profitable spouses have normally had robust identities exterior Downing Avenue.
Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, was a businessman, as is Mrs. Could’s husband, Philip. David Cameron’s spouse, Samantha, ran a style firm, whereas Ms. Blair, who as soon as had her personal political ambitions, labored as a high-level barrister throughout her husband’s decade in workplace. Although Ms. Blair’s affect got here underneath criticism early on, the scrutiny subsided as she constructed a flourishing authorized profession.
“She all the time knew she may return to her job on the bar, which made it much less demeaning to be the appendage,” mentioned Fiona Millar, a journalist and onetime aide to Ms. Blair. Ms. Symonds, she mentioned, “doesn’t appear to have that life exterior politics, which the individuals who’ve been profitable at it did have.”
The daughter of Matthew Symonds, a co-founder of The Unbiased newspaper, and a lawyer for the paper, Josephine McAfee, Ms. Symonds was raised by her mom (each mother and father had been married to different individuals on the time).
Her younger maturity was deeply affected by an incident in 2007 when she was focused by a taxi driver who served her spiked drinks whereas driving her dwelling. Ms. Symonds testified towards the person, John Worboys, who was jailed as a serial sexual predator.
Effectively linked and social, Ms. Symonds grew to become a public relations aide for the Conservative Occasion, ultimately rising to chief communications officer, the place she encountered Mr. Johnson. The couple had hoped to get married final summer time, after his divorce from Marina Wheeler grew to become last, however delayed the date due to coronavirus restrictions.
Life in Downing Avenue is much less glamorous than it would seem, Ms. Millar mentioned. Whereas the job comes with a spacious Westminster condo, a baronial weekend dwelling, Chequers, and an annual adorning funds of £30,000 ($41,600), the federal government doesn’t pay for meals or family workers. Outdoors of public events, the couple are anticipated to cook dinner for themselves or get takeout.
Dwelling above the workplace, as Mr. Johnson struggled with the pandemic and his personal sickness, was difficult, individuals who know Ms. Symonds mentioned. She contracted Covid herself, whereas pregnant, after which cared for his or her child whereas Mr. Johnson, 56, was nonetheless shaking off his sickness.
“There have been occasions final week that had been very darkish certainly,” Ms. Symonds tweeted after he was launched from an intensive care unit. Regardless of that, she retained her curiosity in environmental safety.
“Since having Wilf & not with the ability to get to the retailers throughout lockdown,” she posted 4 months later, “I’ve relied on Amazon for many child necessities, however I’ve been dismayed on the quantity of plastic packaging. Please signal this petition to ask Amazon to offer us plastic-free choices too.”
Political commentators say they see Ms. Symonds’ fingerprints in Mr. Johnson’s embrace of inexperienced insurance policies. They are saying she has performed to his pragmatic instincts by nudging him towards a extra conciliatory politics.
Few prime ministerial companions have been so deeply immersed in politics. Not solely does she know the Conservative Occasion effectively, she additionally has robust contacts amongst its lawmakers, political journalists and the particular advisers who play a strong position in Downing Avenue and elsewhere within the authorities.
Steven Fielding, professor of political historical past on the College of Nottingham, mentioned individuals have questioned Ms. Symonds’ affect “due to her particular insights and connections and background as a political operative and due to Boris Johnson’s malleability, and the truth that nobody is bound what in his head.”
A number of the uneasiness about Ms. Symonds is as a lot about Mr. Johnson as her. With few mounted positions and an absence of ideological moorings, he leaves the impression that his selections might be swayed by these with biggest entry to him. Throughout a yr of lockdowns, that circle typically shrank to Ms. Symonds.
“The explanation we’re fussing over that is that we predict we now have an insufficient determine as prime minister,” mentioned Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who’s a senior analysis fellow on the U.Okay. in a Altering Europe, a London suppose tank. “If we thought we had a very good prime minister, would we actually care who his partner is, past hoping he has a cheerful private life?”