A woman feared: She led a coup against key Boris Johnson aide – now Carrie Symonds is more influential than ever. But ex-Tory press chief AMANDA PLATELL asks: should a Prime Minister’s consort really wield so much power?
Some years ago, when I was head of communications for William Hague, then Tory Leader of the Opposition, he called me and other key advisers to a crisis meeting at his Yorkshire home.
There were 12 of us at the dining table, including William’s wife Ffion, a highly-intelligent civil servant.
But when Ffion offered her views on the crisis, William told her in no uncertain terms that, as interesting as her intervention was, it had no place at that meeting.
Sexist? No. Just a recognition of a British tradition: when we elect a party leader, we do not also ordain the wife, husband or girlfriend to proffer their wisdom on how to run the country.
This week, the glamorous Symonds appears to have intervened in a remarkable way to orchestrate a plot to boot out Boris Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, to prevent his promotion to chief of staff
Fast forward to today, and to our current Prime Minister’s consort Carrie Symonds, 32. This week, the glamorous Symonds appears to have intervened in a remarkable way to orchestrate a plot to boot out Boris Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, to prevent his promotion to chief of staff.
This wasn’t some minor personnel issue: it cut to the heart of who is really in charge of the Government’s messaging in the midst of a pandemic – and even, some say, who is in charge of the Government itself.
Now, by many accounts, Cain divided opinion: a former red-top journalist, he’s described as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ who, along with his mentor, the PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, could at times cast a malign influence over No10 – even presuming at times to dictate to the boss.
But even if Carrie was on the right side of the argument over Cain, she shouldn’t have been having the argument to start with. Put simply, this was a ‘power-grab’, led by Carrie with the help of three formidable female accomplices.
When Ffion Hague (pictured with her husband William) offered her views on the crisis, William told her in no uncertain terms that, as interesting as her intervention was, it had no place at that meeting
The first is former Guardian journalist Allegra Stratton, newly appointed to head Boris’s US-style daily press briefings due in January. It’s reported that Stratton wouldn’t work with Cain and wanted to report directly to the PM.
Second, Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has long been suspicious of Cain’s close bond with the Machiavellian Cummings. (No one – apart from Boris – has much time for Cummings, of course, since he infamously broke the first lockdown to drive 264 miles to visit family and go sightseeing at Barnard Castle, including driving to ‘test his eyesight’).
Finally, the hitherto little-known but highly respected Munira Mirza, head of the Downing Street policy unit who also, apparently, had her misgivings about Cain.
Amanda Platell (pictured): This wasn’t some minor personnel issue: it cut to the heart of who is really in charge of the Government’s messaging in the midst of a pandemic – and even, some say, who is in charge of the Government itself
This group of women, taking back control: call it Girl Power, call it what you really, really want – but don’t call it democracy. For make no mistake: Boris’s determined fiancee is the lead suspect in this mini-coup at the heart of government.
And in light of this, we are entitled to ask: Who is Carrie Symonds really? What right does she have to determine the direction of policy behind the black door of No10?
And how, despite being unelected, has she become the most powerful woman in politics today, and possibly the most influential Prime Ministerial ‘companion’ in history?
Officially Carrie has a job as a senior advisor at Oceana, a not-for-profit organisation that protects the oceans. Oceana extols her qualifications as a ‘graduate of the University of Warwick where she received first class honors (sic)’ and her ‘passion for protecting the oceans and marine life’.
Very noble, I’m sure, but that doesn’t qualify you to dictate the Downing St spin operation. But evidently Carrie believes she has the right to pull the Government’s strings as she worked as a press officer for the Tory Party and was once its head of communications, appointed in 2018 and stepping down later that year.
Former colleagues who met her before she began her relationship with Boris describe her as ‘marvellously bewitching’. Known as ‘Apples’ for her adorable dimples, many men were captivated by her sparkling eyes and those long blonde tresses.
Even if Carrie was on the right side of the argument over Lee Cain (pictured), she shouldn’t have been having the argument to start with
She also knew how to connect with the right people and had a knack of always being in the right place at the right time.
Carrie’s boast to her small Tory Central Office team back then was that, whatever it took, she had her sights set on No10.
They assumed she meant standing for election or joining the PM’s press team: little did they think that would it involve snapping up a Tory leader while he was still married to the mother of four of his children.
The key point is that whether or not Carrie worked as a Tory spin doctor before she moved in with Boris, it is surely not right for her to continue behind the scenes today, seemingly exerting influence over who is hired and fired, while she and the PM are living together and raising a child.
Indeed, in recent months, she appeared to have been quietly enjoying life as a new mum, nursing baby Wilfred just as, we assume, she nursed Boris through his own life-threatening bout with the virus.
Yet behind the scenes, it now appears she was instrumental in triggering Cain’s resignation on Wednesday night, following media briefings about his alleged ‘incompetence’ and unsuitability for the new role.
No wonder there are whispers that this is her ‘Lady Macbeth’ moment: a calculating woman set on taking control of her husband’s destiny. What palls is that, if true, it flies in the face of what we in Britain expect of the Prime Ministerial ‘plus-one’.
Denis Thatcher was a wise sounding-board for the country’s first and longest-serving female PM. It was he who, 30 years ago, gently told the Iron Lady, when the forces of the Tory party were raging against her, that it was time to go.
And, yes, Cherie Blair would intervene on behalf of her husband, phoning female MPs to vote for the dubious war in Iraq that became Tony’s undoing. But apart from headlines over allegedly dodgy property deals, for the most part, Cherie was oft seen but seldom heard.
Sarah Brown spoke at one Labour conference imploring members to support her beleaguered husband Gordon. That was noble and enough.
Samantha Cameron once visited a refugee camp, before realising the British are not endeared to politicians’ wives trying to garner public support, however worthy the cause.
Yet until this week, no PM’s spouse or partner has ever made such a direct assault on the machinery of government, nor sought – as is alleged – to oust a trusted aide. Now, in the corridors of power, Carrie is a woman feared: the so-called ‘blonde assassin’ who can apparently destroy anyone she perceives to be an enemy, even if that person happens to be one of her partner’s key allies.
Yet Carrie has broken the assassin’s first rule in leaving a trail of evidence pointing to her apparent collusion in his downfall. Perhaps this was intentional, perhaps not.
But in doing so, she has emasculated Boris, our Prime Minister, at a time of crisis for the country and when we are in dire need of strong leadership.
She has made him appear weak, further damaging the nation’s already shaky confidence in him.
After all, if he is not in control of his own destiny, why should we trust him with ours?
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