Carrie Johnson: why did the media take such an interest in Boris Johnson’s wife?

<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Carrie Johnson is the prime ministerial spouse who has had to face more questions over her political influence than any predecessor in Downing Street since Cherie Blair. At the same time, the 34-year-old has got married, had two children and seen her husband admitted to intensive care with Covid in three years that began with uncertainty about whether she would even move into No 10.

But it is the fact that she came from the Westminster political milieu – a former special adviser (spad) to two cabinet ministers – and that there was a rivalry with Johnson’s best-known adviser, Dominic Cummings, which marked Johnson out for media attention during her husband’s chaotic tenure.

Contrast that with Theresa May’s husband. A City fund manager, Philip May did not arrive with external relationships in the media, and although at times he attended No 10 meetings, according to insiders at the time, he maintained a low and loyal profile in a style calculated to evoke little public interest.

Friends and allies describe Carrie Johnson as spirited and witty with firm opinions, which make her ideally suited to the gossipy world of Westminster. “She is brilliant, hugely likeable and fun, and we got on very well,” said John Whittingdale, a veteran Conservative who gave her her first big break when he appointed her as a spad in 2015 when he was culture secretary.

Her status in Conservative circles grew. A lively 30th birthday party for the then Carrie Symonds, held at the home of Lady Simone Finn in Primrose Hill in north London, was attended by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid. Those present say her future husband gave a speech and Gove performed a Hamilton-inspired rap.

She appears to have begun a relationship with Johnson in 2018. In the same year, he announced that he and his second wife, the lawyer Marina Wheeler, were separating, at a time when May’s premiership was faltering. A picture of Johnson and Symonds laughing as they left a fundraising ball at the Natural History Museum in February 2018 was the first public clue they were close.

At times, the connection appeared intense. Police were called following a loud altercation at Symonds’ south London flat in summer 2019, a time when her partner was on the brink of entering Downing Street.

The row was recorded by neighbours. It was said to consist largely of her fulminating after Johnson spilled red wine on her sofa and his efforts to placate her. But she brushed it off to friends and described the passing of the recording to the Guardian as politically motivated.

After her partner entered Downing Street, Symonds was said to have relatively limited influence as the “get Brexit done” strategy of Cummings dominated. But that changed after the prime minister’s election win in December 2019, as the Covid crisis and a notorious lockdown trip to Durham shattered Cummings’ credibility.

Insiders said Symonds was rarely a presence in No 10 meetings, preferring to exercise influence directly – calling, texting or talking to the prime minister in person. She often focused on issues of personal interest, notably environmentalism but also LGBTQ+ rights.

At times she would mischievously enjoy briefing out stories to the press without the Downing Street press office knowing, particularly on animal welfare. The argument was that such topics “cut through beyond traditional party politics”, according to one friend. Campaigns included banning elephant riding holidays.

Symonds, who became Carrie Johnson after her marriage in May 2021, maintained her own influential circle. This included social activist Nimco Ali, spads Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone, and journalists such as Alex Wickham, formerly of Politico and now at Bloomberg news and a godparent to her and Johnson’s son Wilfred, and Harry Cole, an ex-boyfriend who is political editor of the Sun.

Those who know her say she often “critiques the press and policy direction of the moment” and took a close interest in the appointments of political advisers. A defining moment in Downing Street was the row that led to the departure of Cummings, then the prime minister’s chief adviser, and his principal ally Lee Cain, the director of communications, in November 2020.

The prime minister had wanted to appoint Cain as chief of staff, but Carrie became involved in a rearguard action to block it amid briefings that a “macho boys’ club” had come to dominate No 10. Cain then changed his mind about the job and decided instead to follow Cummings out the door.

That left behind a legacy of bitterness, and on more than one occasion, Cummings publicly complained about Carrie Johnson thereafter, calling her a “wrong ’un” and saying she had gone “completely crackers” over a news story about her dog, Dilyn, at a critical early point in the pandemic.

It was often hard for her to respond, given her formal role. Allies say she was frequently a victim of inaccuracy and sexism in media coverage, and that much of it amounted to hatchet jobs inspired by briefing from critics. Another friend, who asked not to be named, said a reliable way to get Carrie to text back was to highlight something controversial Cummings had just said.

A more fundamental difficulty was that she was drawn into scandals that contributed to her husband’s downfall. There were calls to investigate an alleged “victory party” held in lockdown by Carrie Johnson and friends in their flat when Cummings left, with Abba’s Winner Takes It All said to be among the tracks played, though this is denied.

But the event was not fully investigated in Sue Gray’s “Partygate” inquiry and no fines were levied by the Metropolitan police. Instead Carrie Johnson was fined £50 for attending a short-lived birthday celebration for the prime minister in June 2020, and she later apologised.

A recent report that she and her husband had wanted to build a £150,000 treehouse at the prime minister’s country home, Chequers, cut through with the public, recalling the earlier row over the luxury renovation of their Downing Street flat by designer Lulu Lytle.

Unlike her husband, Carrie Johnson leaves Downing Street with most of her career in front of her. But like him she will want and need to reinvent herself given the turbulence and controversies of the previous three years.