From Denis Thatcher to Carrie Symonds: three decades of Downing Street spouses
After tying the knot at the weekend Carrie Symonds joins the long line of spouses in No. 10
Unlike their American counterparts, British “first spouses” – as they are sometimes referred to in the press – don’t hold an official political role in the office of the prime minister. It is a nebulous role, with many preferring to remain firmly in the shadows while the PM gets on with the top job; although many have acted as important and trusted unofficial advisors, too.
As Carrie Symonds became Carrie Johnson this Bank Holiday weekend, here’s a look at the last 30 years of Downing Street spouses.
The “steadfast” husband to Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s longest-serving and, of course, first female prime minister, from 1979 to 1990, Denis Thatcher was a man “who embraced his role as second fiddle with aplomb and humour”, wrote The New York Times on his death in 2003.
Once describing himself as the “most shadowy husband of all time”, according to the Associated Press, he was happy to remain in the background politically but was nonetheless known to have hard-right views. Something of a “golf addict”, says The Telegraph, he was best known to the public through his fictional parody alter ego, in Private Eye’s “Dear Bill” spoof letters to his real-life friend Lord Bill Deedes, then editor of The Daily Telegraph.
The wife of John Major, who held office from 1990 to 1997, described their meeting as “love at first sight” in an interview on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. She displayed little interest in politics during her husband’s tenure, telling the programme she had “no problem” with being described simply as a “wife and mother” – although she was something of a kingmaker on discovering her husband’s affair with his Conservative colleague Edwina Currie in 1988.
She is said to have given Major an ultimatum: end the affair instantly, or she would leave him. “Had she done so, his political career would have been destroyed or, at very least, knocked back by several years,” a friend of Norma’s told the London Evening Standard. “Certainly, he would not have succeeded in becoming Prime Minister if his marriage had collapsed at that moment and he knew it."
Wife to Tony Blair, the UK’s youngest and longest-serving Labour prime minister, in office from 1997 to 2007, Cherie Blair is a top QC, practising under her maiden name, Booth, and was the first wife of a prime minister to have her own career. Born to a working-class family in Liverpool, she graduated with a first-class law degree from the London School of Economics, and became a barrister in 1976, then Queen’s Counsel in 1995.
“The 16-year-old me used to say she was going to be the first woman prime minister,” she told The Big Issue last year. “So maybe she would be surprised to find out that I never was. Or maybe she’d be surprised that I actually did make it to 10 Downing Street, albeit on my husband’s coat-tails.”
Joint founder of PR firm Hobsbawm Macaulay, whose clients included the Labour Party, Sarah met her future husband Gordon on a flight from London to Scotland for the Scottish Labour Party Conference in 1994. She chronicled her time as the prime minister’s spouse, from 2007 to 2010, in her 2011 book, Behind the Black Door, which the New Statesman said successfully describes “the awkwardness of the lifestyle” and “the vagueness of the position”.
“Arguably the most popular” of all contemporary PM spouses, says The Telegraph, Sarah Brown “took cues” from her American contemporary, Michelle Obama, including by personally introducing her husband, Gordon, at Labour conferences.
She earned herself “a near-official nickname” – SamCam – during her time in No. 10, writes The Telegraph, and much like Sarah Brown, approached her role as the prime minister’s spouse, between 2010 and 2016, as “US-style First Lady”, frequently topping best-dressed lists and working as a charity ambassador for Save the Children, visiting Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The paper describes her as “impossibly well-bred” and indeed, she is the daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, 8th Baronet, and attended Marlborough College, before studying fine art at the University of the West of England.
The first husband since Denis Thatcher 25 years previously, to take on the role of “First Spouse” between 2016 and 2019, he was known to be Theresa May’s “most trusted advisor”. Indeed, May famously decided to call a snap election after a walking holiday in Wales with him in 2017.
The pair were introduced while at Oxford University by Benazir Bhutto, later to become the prime minister of Pakistan.
An experienced political advisor in Conservative circles, Symonds became the youngest-ever Conservative Party communications chief when she took on the role aged 29 in 2018, but left the same year to join Oceana, an ocean conservation non-profit organisation.
When Carrie entered Downing Street alongside Boris Johnson in 2019 they were the first unmarried couple to live together at the grace and favour home of the British prime minister. They have since tied the knot over the May Bank Holiday weekend. The pair were first romantically linked in 2019 before Johnson was Conservative leader – but her association with Johnson dates back several years, having worked on his successful re-election bid as London mayor in 2012.