How much power does Carrie Johnson wield?
New biography claims UK’s ‘first lady’ has meddled in PM’s decisions since 2019
Carrie Johnson is the target of a “brutal briefing campaign” by her husband’s “enemies”, her spokesperson has said.
The rare statement was issued to Sky News following allegations made by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in a new, unauthorised biography called First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson.
Ashcroft has accused the PM’s wife of meddling in his decisions from as early as 2019 before he was elected Tory leader. She allegedly pushed her then boyfriend to withdraw a request to the former Conservative minister James Wharton to stand as his chief of staff in his bid for the party leadership.
“Boris told him that Carrie didn’t trust him, and she wanted someone different in that post,” a source who worked on the campaign told Ashcroft, whose book was serialised in the Mail on Sunday.
Her supporters have rushed to rubbish claims that she has too much say in key decisions in Downing Street. Her spokesperson said Ashcroft’s allegations are “just the latest attempt by bitter ex-officials” to discredit her, and described the UK’s “first lady” as “a private individual who plays no role in government”.
What is Carrie Johnson’s background?
Daughter of The Independent co-founder Matthew Symonds and Josephine McAffee, one of the newspaper’s lawyers, Johnson (née Symonds) grew up in southwest London and attended the private Godolphin and Latymer School.
In 2007, at the age of 19, Johnson was targeted by serial rapist John Worboys, who used his job as a black cab driver to offer his victims spiked drinks and then assault them while they were passed out or semi-conscious.
She later found out about Worboys’ other victims and was among those who expressed outrage when a parole board ordered his release, eventually forcing a High Court ruling in 2018 to keep him behind bars, reported The Times.
She studied at Warwick University and graduated with a first-class honours degree in art history and theatre studies. She joined Conservative HQ as a press officer in 2009, where the “gregarious, intelligent, ambitious, strong-minded and attractive” Johnson “quickly made a name for herself”, said the Daily Mail.
Johnson spent six months working in a maternity cover role as Sajid Javid’s adviser in the Department for Communities and Local Government. According to the same paper, a source told Ashcroft that Johnson “spent the whole time trying to get the department to buy her a gold-coloured iPad” even though Apple products were “understood to have been incompatible with the department’s computer network”. The request was eventually approved at the public’s expense. However, Johnson’s spokesman said the book is full of “vile fabrications”.
In 2017, she was made head of the Conservative “spin machine” following Theresa May’s botched general election, said the Mail. However, she quit in August 2018.
How did she meet the PM?
Johnson first met the PM in 2012 when she was seconded to work on his London mayor re-election campaign, later becoming director of communications at the Conservative campaign headquarters.
“Eyebrows were raised” in March 2018 when social media posts revealed that Boris Johnson, and his colleagues Michael Gove and Javid, had attended her “alcohol-fuelled 30th birthday bash”, reported The Telegraph at the time.
The article described her as a “flirty favourite of Tory big hitters with a canny feel for being in the right place at the right time”.
When Boris Johnson, then the foreign secretary, announced in September 2018 that he was divorcing his second wife, barrister Marina Wheeler, his “intimate relationship with Symonds” was swiftly thrust “into the spotlight”, said The Sunday Times.
She dominated the headlines in the summer of 2019 amid reports that police were called to her house following an alleged bust-up with Johnson shortly before he became PM. Neither of them commented on the incident and police said no action was taken as all occupants of the address were “safe and well”.
On 29 April 2020, the couple’s son, Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson, was born, just two weeks after the prime minister left hospital after falling seriously ill with Covid-19.
When did they make it official?
The pair married in a secretly planned wedding at Westminster Cathedral on 29 May last year. According to the Mail on Sunday, 30 guests attended, which was the limit under Covid rules at the time.
Their marriage was the third for the prime minister, who split with his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, in 1993 and agreed a divorce settlement with second wife, Marina Wheeler, in February 2020. His May 2021 nuptials made him the first PM to get married while in office in nearly 200 years.
The Johnsons announced the birth of their second child, a daughter called Romy Iris Charlotte, on 9 December. Carrie has described her as a “rainbow baby”, said The Guardian, referring to a miscarriage she had earlier last year.
How much influence does she have?
Johnson quit her role at Conservative HQ in August 2018 to join Bloomberg as PR for the media giant’s ecological initiative Vibrant Oceans. She then took up a new role as head of communications at wildlife charity the Aspinall Foundation in February 2021.
But while more than three years have passed since she left her day job as the Conservative Party’s head of communications, the extent of Johnson’s political influence is still hotly debated.
In February last year, Conservative think tank the Bow Group called for an independent inquiry into her “possible influence” in government. “Media reports have claimed she advises the PM on an informal basis – from issues of animal welfare through to who to appoint in key roles – and that she clashed with his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings,” the BBC noted at the time.
Then, the Mail on Sunday alleged last April that Johnson (then Symonds) had pressed for the removal of Environment Secretary George Eustice because he was “seen as being too close to the farmers and insufficiently robust on her cherished animal welfare issues”. The paper’s Dan Hodges said that it was an “open secret within Westminster how Ms Symonds’s influence extends over government”.
No. 10 denied the claims, while Tory peer Zac Goldsmith said the “fabricated” speculation was “dunked in 1950s sexism”.