When Tatler magazine commissioned me to write this month’s cover story on Carrie Symonds, the warnings came in fast – from her friends… and foes.
‘It will be a world of pain,’ warned a Fleet Street veteran. ‘Even if you write something nice, she’ll hate it.’
Certainly, the First Fiancee has a reputation for taking offence – and often hitting back in tirades.
‘It’s a nightmare,’ I was told with a sigh. ‘Boris is just exhausted trying to keep her happy. He doesn’t know how to say no to her.’
A long-standing friend of Boris Johnson offered me an entertaining spiel about how the 32-year-old chatelaine of No 10 had turned it into ‘the court of Henry VIII’, with herself as a scheming Anne Boleyn-figure, ousting her fiance’s political cardinals such as Dominic Cummings.
Weathering the storm: Boris Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds pictured visiting the Birdfair annual event for birdwatching at Rutland Water in 2019
On the other hand, testimonials abounded of how smart, empathetic and encouraging of colleagues she can be.
John Whittingdale MP, who hired Carrie in her first senior adviser job, oozed: ‘She was utterly brilliant. Organised and patient.’
Having watched over the years as a number of highly able women – Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron – chafed in the role, I was fascinated to discover how a much younger woman is dealing with a seemingly endless series of toxic rows.
Team Carrie, her loyal outriders, did not seem displeased at the idea of her being written about in the so-called ‘society bible’ which had the Duchess of Cambridge on the cover last summer. Although she did not speak to me in person, I was allowed exhaustive access to many friends and allies.
It was a bit like witnessing the White House’s West Wing PR machine whirr into life.
Her office runs noticeably more smoothly since Sarah Vaughan-Brown, a former top ITN communications boss, was appointed. I’m not sure Boris’s own communications operation is anywhere near as energetic as his other half’s.
But I also heard from enemies she’d made on her rapid ascent through the Conservative Party to seal a relationship with a serially unfaithful politician whose second marriage had nonetheless lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
Anne Boleyn apart, her soubriquets are many – and often tinged with sexism: including Cersei, after the controlling diva in TV’s Game Of Thrones, Marie Antoinette for her free-spending habits and, most savagely, Princess Nut Nuts for her supposed regal/crazy behaviour.
A long-standing friend of Boris Johnson offered me an entertaining spiel about how the 32-year-old chatelaine of No 10 had turned it into ‘the court of Henry VIII’, writes Anne McElvoy
Carrie picks and promotes allies, and can dispatch enemies ruthlessly. Whereas Boris is accused of not bothering too much about female advancement, the First Fiancee lobbies strongly for women in the Cabinet. It was her wish to have Allegra Stratton brought in to be the public face of No 10’s clunky communications.
She has bonded, too, with Baroness Simone Finn – a talented fixer who’s been appointed as Downing Street’s gatekeeper.
Finn and Symonds are a power duo to watch. When Finn hosted Symonds’s 30th birthday party, they belted out Abba’s hit The Winner Takes It All – leading wags to call them ‘Eddie and Patsy’ after the Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley characters in TV’s Absolutely Fabulous.
Despite this sisterly solidarity, Carrie is accused of being curt or rude about women she distrusts or who do not meet with her approval. The least edifying story – with information I gathered since the Tatler piece was published adding extra piquancy – concerns stylish Civil Service high-flyer Antonia Romeo with whom there was bad blood.
The socially well-connected Romeo had worked her way through the salt mines of the diplomatic world as a senior official at the Department for International Trade slogging over Brexit difficulties, had become Consul-General in New York, then sought big promotion to the top job of Cabinet Secretary.
Symonds, sources say, made clear she disliked Romeo, believing that she had become too (platonically) friendly with Johnson on a trip to New York – and carping at her ambition.
Romeo didn’t get the Cabinet Secretary job, after a final round of interviews in which she was the only female candidate.
When Tatler magazine commissioned me to write this month’s cover story on Carrie Symonds, the warnings came in fast – from her friends… and foes, writes Anne
A Minister with whom Romeo has worked commented: ‘Antonia is very sharp and analytical. She understands power and how to wield it for Britain. She deserved far better. But she is seen as a man’s woman. And Carrie is clearly allergic to that.’
The product of a childhood in which she was brought up by a single mother and got a theatre studies degree from Warwick University, she has always been a supporter of a new generation who are staunchly Conservative but not part of the glib ‘Oxbridge- to-politics Tory conveyor belt’.
Her very close friend Nimco Ali exemplifies Team Carrie – being both superglue loyal and involved in a scattergun network of charitable causes.
They first made common cause during a trip to Somalia in 2018. They then campaigned to highlight violence against women and female genital mutilation.
Not unreasonably for someone who only got together with her partner three eventful years ago and who had found life in her bachelor girl South London flat stressful, creating a home in Downing Street has mattered a lot to Carrie.
She was, as she quipped to one visitor, desperate to see the back of the ‘John Lewis nightmare’ bequeathed by Theresa May. And despite Samantha Cameron having fitted a stylish kitchen, Carrie wanted rid of what I was told she described as the ‘greige vibe’ (a Notting Hill chic mix of grey and beige).
The Lulu Lytle (pictured above) look appeals to a side of Carrie that savours luxury and the company of the wealthy and powerful
Visitors to the couple’s No 11 flat have raved to me about a new, deep green drawing room with jewel-coloured fabrics, lit by lanterns and candles in the evening and a golden yellow kitchen.
When I mischievously asked Michael Gove last week – during a video discussion about the newly published diaries of the 1930s MP Chips Channon – what the indiscreet socialite might have made of Carrie’s expensive makeover with designs by upmarket stylist Lulu Lytle, he replied wryly: ‘Lulu is clearly a sought-after designer. But I think Chips would have been rather more extravagant.’
Equally, though, I have been told many tales of Carrie’s thrift – doing up a treasured but ancient baby crib herself and using clothes-rental services for red carpet events.
But the Lulu Lytle look appeals to a side of Carrie that savours luxury and the company of the wealthy and powerful. Indeed, her new job is as head of communications at an animal charity run by Damian Aspinall, who’s reckoned to be worth £200 million.
When I inquired about her salary, the terse reply from a proxy was ‘it’s a commercial agreement’. No surprise, either, that it’s been suggested that a multi-millionaire Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, has been asked to help set up a charity to pay for the refurb at No 11.
He is a major investor in Samantha Cameron’s Cefinn niche fashion label and is said to be helping it after a trying year. An affable character with a good line in tart gossip, he has also been a generous donor to charities associated with the Duchess of Cornwall.
Undoubtedly money is a pressing issue for Carrie and Boris.
He had an expensive divorce and there’s the need to help support some of his four children by ex-wife Marina Wheeler, another child by a former mistress as well as the costs of funding a new family with Carrie.
He was annoyed at being warned he might need to repay a publisher’s fat advance for a book on Shakespeare when he became Prime Minister – a stand-off which was resolved by pushing back the publication date by at least a decade.
Day-to-day running costs (not least the £12,500 worth of gourmet, organic food delivered to Downing Street for the couple) are mounting up. And that is before the ‘big wedding’ that friends of Carrie anticipate as soon as lockdown ends properly after Boris turns 57. She is already thinking about her dress.
A sample design from Lulu Lytle. Michael Gove said: ‘Lulu is clearly a sought-after designer. But I think Chips would have been rather more extravagant’
Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie Symonds seen leaving the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey in March last year
When I raised Carrie’s spending with a friend, I got an angry response: ‘Everyone has forgotten what a terrible year they have had…It has been really tough and the months after Boris’s Covid were horrible.’
Another source told me his recovery was slow and his energy levels so drained by the virus that Carrie, recovering from having baby Wilfred, sank down on the stairs in exhaustion on one occasion. The couple have finally chosen a nanny, so domestic life in their Downing Street love-nest has become smoother.
But such is the febrile atmosphere around Carrie that ahead of the new edition of Tatler going on sale, I got a spate of calls from Team Carrie spear-carriers asking anxiously what I had written and how critical it might be. This was a sign that the outward confidence of the new, feminised No 10 is not immune to bouts of nerves.
But her fiance’s Government is well ahead in the polls with the successful vaccine rollout and a corner having been turned from the early mishandling of the pandemic. The tug-o-war between Boris’s so-called ‘Bromance Boys’ from the Vote Leave campaign and their nemesis, cheerleaders for ‘Carrie’s coup’, has ended in an all-out triumph for Team Carrie.
However, the next few months won’t all be about quiet nights in with deliveries of organic chicken tagine from Daylesford, the UK’s poshest farmshop, and watching nature documentaries such as Our Planet on Netflix.
Carrie set out to be part of her man’s political story, as well as his romantic one. She’s ‘a political thoroughbred who loves to race,’ as a Conservative Central Office veteran puts it. One thing is for sure: there will be thrills – and doubtless more spills – to come on the newly fitted soft-pile carpets in Downing Street.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist and hosts The Economist Asks talk show podcast.