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November 2021 Issue [Letter from Westminster]

Keeping Up with the Johnsons

Boris and Carrie spiff up Downing Street
Illustrations by André Carrilho

Illustrations by André Carrilho

[Letter from Westminster]

Keeping Up with the Johnsons

Boris and Carrie spiff up Downing Street

In April, Britain’s chattering classes became obsessed with the cost of the wallpaper in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat. New leaders are entitled to 30,000 pounds annually from taxpayers to decorate No. 11, where prime ministers since Tony Blair have lived because it’s larger than the flat above No. 10. Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, had given the space a modest makeover. Before her, David Cameron and his aristocratic wife, Samantha, had gone for a Scandi-style look. Boris and his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, opted for dark-green walls. The curtains were green, as were the window frames. Paintings replaced bookshelves. A sofa upholstered with ruby and emerald fabric arrived. The rooms are often lit by candles.

To oversee this work, Boris and Carrie commissioned an interior designer named Lulu Lytle, known for her chintz patterns, her rattan furniture, and her interest in Egyptology. Her look is old-world and expensive. Prince Charles has paid a visit to her workshop. Boris and Carrie’s purchase of gold wallpaper from Lytle’s company, Soane Britain, was particularly noted by British tabloids. When the final bill arrived, it emerged that the couple had slightly overshot: the total cost was reported to be in the region of 200,000 pounds.

The general consensus was that Carrie had told Boris that the flat needed an overhaul. When the renovations proved unaffordable, nobody seemed prepared to let her know, least of all Boris. (“He’s quite scared of her,” says one former No. 10 aide.)

At first, the Conservative Party settled the bill—with one donor, Lord Brownlow, pledging to cover a reported 58,000 pounds of the extra costs. It was all handled privately, but when leaked emails sent to the party co-chairman Ben Elliot (the nephew of Prince Charles’s wife, Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall) revealed what had happened, the prime minister couldn’t dodge the issue. A Downing Street spokesperson insisted that the party had merely provided a “bridging loan,” which the government had hoped would be repaid by a trust established for the purpose. But when the trust failed to materialize, Boris repaid the money himself, despite reportedly telling aides that he couldn’t afford to do so.

There is talk that Boris is struggling to make ends meet, thanks in large part to his second divorce. His annual salary of 157,000 pounds is much less than what he was earning as one of Britain’s highest paid newspaper columnists. Donors were allegedly approached to cover the cost of a nanny for Boris and Carrie’s baby, Wilfred. (“I resent being asked to pay to literally wipe the prime minister’s baby’s bottom,” complained one.)

It was apparent that Carrie was at the heart of Wallpapergate (as it inevitably became known) once her rival Dominic Cummings—Boris’s now-estranged chief adviser, and one of the main architects of Brexit—announced his opinion that the funding for the renovations was “possibly illegal.” There are strict rules governing political donations in the United Kingdom; by finding a donor to cover costs, it seemed, the prime minister may have broken them. The Electoral Commission opened an investigation, saying there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred” in the funding for the flat refurbishment. In May, Lord Geidt, the independent adviser appointed to look into the matter, said that Boris had “unwisely” embarked on the renovations without quite knowing how to pay for them, but determined that he had not violated any rules. Nonetheless, Britain’s most senior political couple were clearly living beyond their means.

What really set tongues wagging, though, was not so much Johnson’s own supposed complaint that the costs were “out of control,” or even that his fiancée was “buying gold wallpaper,” which soon earned her the moniker “Carrie Antoinette.” Instead, it was the claim, made in a profile of Carrie in Tatler magazine (carries coup: inside the world of the most powerful woman in britain), that she had gotten rid of the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” left by the prime minister’s predecessor.

A bit of explanation may be necessary here. John Lewis is a department store, founded in London in 1864, that occupies a peculiar place in Britain’s national psyche. It sells almost everything you could want for your home, in fifty shades of beige. The store is considered quintessential to a nation of shopkeepers, and the British are oddly patriotic about it. Countless wedding registries are held there. The premiere of the John Lewis Christmas advert has somehow come to mark the start of the festive season. To insult John Lewis is to set yourself apart from the aspirational everyman.

The prime minister—who presumably would have been happy to leave the flat as tatty as his famously disheveled Toyota—realized the political danger at hand. Despite being an Old Etonian, an Oxford alumnus, and a millionaire, Johnson has tried hard to cultivate a common touch. “I love John Lewis,” he told a reporter as the story about his renovations escalated.

In the end, Wallpapergate didn’t damage Johnson politically. In May, local elections were held across the United Kingdom, and the Tories were largely victorious. As in the general election two years prior, they performed well among working-class voters, who were seemingly happy to overlook the price of wallpaper. But others were still worried. Dame Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, had approached Lulu Lytle to redecorate her home on Embassy Row in Washington, but the revamp was quietly dropped. Lytle had gone out of fashion.

When Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing Street on July 24, 2019, he did so alone, the first prime minister to be unaccompanied by a spouse in almost half a century. As he walked through the famous black door, his thirty-one-year-old girlfriend (or mistress, depending on how one sees it, as he was still married to his second wife, Marina) watched demurely from the sidelines with his staff and colleagues, many of whom she knew from her time working as a Conservative Party spokesperson.

This spring, not long after Wallpapergate hit the tabloids, Symonds became Johnson’s third wife, making her the youngest spouse of a prime minister in 173 years and Johnson the first British prime minister in nearly two centuries to marry while in office. They held a small, secret ceremony in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of British Catholicism. (Johnson and Symonds are both baptized Catholics; Johnson is twice-divorced, but his previous unions took place outside the church and so, in terms of canon law, he had a clean slate.) The after-party was held at Downing Street, with hay bales and bunting decorating the garden. Perhaps chastened by recent tales of her largesse, the bride wore a boho-chic dress reportedly rented for 45 pounds, a flower crown, and no shoes; the groom looked like he was off to work.

A healthy press corps might have been slightly ashamed that the prime minister and his bride had managed to stage a thirty-guest wedding without news getting out. Instead, many of Westminster’s journalists (a number of whom are close to Carrie) gawped like the Hollywood Reporter when the photos were released online. Earlier that week, Cummings had revealed during a public inquiry that Carrie “wanted rid of” him. The nuptials leaked just in time to make a splash in the Sunday papers. In print, her friends gushed about Carrie’s “triumph” over dastardly Dom.

Shortly after their secret marriage, Carrie Johnson emerged on the world stage at the G7 summit in Cornwall. (Unlike Johnson’s previous wives, Carrie has taken her husband’s name, which makes her the first Mrs. Johnson.) As the conference began, Boris explained to those in attendance that he wanted to create a “more feminine” future. “That is what the people of our countries want us to focus on,” he said. “Building back greener, and building back fairer, and building back more equal, and, how shall I . . . in a more gender-neutral and perhaps a more feminine way.”

Boris was not exactly known for his feminist credentials. “Just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way” was his advice to his successor at The Spectator—where he was formerly editor and where, full disclosure, I work—on how to handle the magazine’s American publisher, Kimberly Quinn. While campaigning to become an MP, he suggested that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts.” After Princess Diana’s death, Johnson wrote an article lamenting the outpouring of grief: “We live in an age where feminism is a fact, where giving vent to emotion in public wins votes.”

Clearly, something has changed. Boris Johnson now celebrates International Women’s Day and tweets about #ExtraordinaryWomen. In a piece last year for the women’s magazine Grazia, he nominated the five women who influenced him the most, the first of whom was the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. One of his government’s immediate acts upon leaving the E.U. was to ban the so-called tampon tax.

As the photo ops continued, it became clear that the G7 summit was being used to showcase Boris’s transformation from populist to progressive, nasty to nice. The Johnsons would like to be reassessed by the United States. They are keen to disprove the idea that Boris is a mirror image of Donald Trump, two blond political buffoons brought to power by populist winds, and that Brexit Britain is not a Trumpian force. Fortunately for the prime minister, his new wife appears more than happy to help him with both his public image and her own. Mrs. Johnson seemed to enjoy her new role in front of the media. She invited Jill Biden to frolic barefoot on the seashore with her toddler, Wilfred. “It was wonderful to spend some time with Carrie Johnson and her son, Wilfred, today. The special relationship continues,” said Dr. Biden. Later in the summit, Mrs. Johnson hosted a picnic for the leaders’ spouses at the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno. Attendees were given baskets filled with sandwiches, scones, and a cuddly dolphin toy. In the evening, they drank hot buttered rum and toasted marshmallows around firepits on the sand. In an apparent attempt to endear Britain’s prime minister to America’s liberal elite, No. 10 gave the Atlantic writer Tom McTague full access to Boris for a profile published just before the summit began. (“Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing,” read the subhead.)

To close observers it has been apparent from the start that Carrie hoped to reorient Boris. His decision to focus on issues that younger people are supposedly interested in—animal welfare, women’s rights, and the environment—is partly thanks to her. She loves all creatures great and small. It was notable that in this year’s Queen’s Speech, during which Her Majesty outlines the government’s priorities, many of Carrie’s favored causes were included. An animal sentience bill began making its way through Parliament, introduced by Lord Goldsmith, the animal welfare minister and one of Carrie’s closest allies. Under the law, lobsters would no longer be boiled alive, and foie gras would be banned entirely. Another proposal would prohibit exporting live animals and keeping monkeys as pets. It’s hard to argue against these policies, which makes them perfect for the Tories as they try to rebrand themselves as more millennial-friendly. The Conservatives have traditionally been known as the “nasty party.” Under Carrie, they are becoming cute.

Occasionally, this devotion to animals backfires. Last March, while Downing Street was trying to deal with the pandemic, Carrie was demanding that both the prime minister and his press office respond to a story that had appeared in the Times of London suggesting that her rescue dog, Dilyn, was being “quietly re-homed” because the couple had “grown weary” of him. A reply she wanted sent was later leaked. Boris reportedly refused to sign it on the grounds that it was “nonsense.” Nevertheless, in a show of her power, the newspaper pulled the story from its website soon after publication.

More recently, Pen Farthing, a former Royal Marines commando, was given permission to fly more than a hundred dogs and cats to the United Kingdom from the Kabul airport during the evacuation of Afghanistan. Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, had initially been against the plan but changed his mind. While Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence both denied claims that Carrie personally intervened in the situation, the animal rights campaigner Dominic Dyer—known to be a friend of both Farthing and Carrie Johnson—said that she “most certainly had something to do with the change.”

To plenty of people, it seems more than a little odd that a thirty-three-year-old woman who specializes in political spin has such apparent influence over policymaking. She is unelected and, in many ways, unaccountable. But to understand British politics right now, it helps to understand Mrs. Johnson and her speedy ascent to the top.

Boris’s affair with Carrie began when he was foreign secretary. The two soon became a favorite topic of conversation for much of British society. Who, apart from the most puritanical and earnest among us, isn’t gripped by the dalliances of an older, powerful, priapic man and a younger, attractive, highly ambitious woman?

He left Marina Wheeler, his wife of twenty-five years, after news of this latest affair became public. The divorce wasn’t much of a surprise. Wheeler, a well-respected barrister, had twice kicked her husband out over what Petronella Wyatt, one of his former mistresses, once described as his “sexual delinquencies,” and the nation had already developed an insatiable appetite for tales of Bonking Boris.

He has a twelve-year-old daughter from a fling with the art consultant Helen Macintyre. Earlier this year, Jennifer Arcuri, an American tech entrepreneur with a penchant for pole dancing, admitted to having had a four-year affair with Johnson when he was mayor of London. According to Arcuri, they read Shakespeare to each other before having sex in his family home. Arcuri seems unconvinced by her former lover’s recent progressive turn. The U.K. has “never been more enslaved,” she emailed me. “This isn’t the man I knew at all and at some point the world will find out the truth of what happens when one sells one’s soul in a quest for power.”

Boris has provided plenty of material for gossipy newspaper columnists and tabloid hacks over the years. It’s unclear how he finds the time. Ann Sindall, his loyal assistant, has been with him since his time at The Spectator—or “Sextator,” as it was called during his editorship. Perhaps she knows. His aides don’t comment on his private life and neither does he. Nobody is entirely sure how many children he has, but voters don’t seem to mind.

Neither does Carrie, who is pregnant again. She is said to call him “Bozzie the bear,” while Boris calls her his “little otter.” In 2018, around the start of their relationship, he wrote a cryptic column for the Daily Telegraph about the “exciting” news that the “beautiful” otter had returned. “I do not claim to have seen an otter myself. I did not even hear the splash or bark of an otter,” he wrote. “Nor did I stand on the twilit bank and snuff the thrilling musky fishy aroma that some otter enthusiasts bang on about.” It was notable for being one of his most ardent pieces that year.

By 2019, the pair were living on and off together in her home in South London. In June, a month before the leadership election that would see him become prime minister, they were recorded by neighbors while having a ferocious fight. The police responded to reports of a loud altercation and sounds of shattering kitchenware. The argument was said to be over a glass of wine that had been spilled on Carrie’s sofa. “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt,” Carrie was overheard telling Boris. Neighbors claimed they heard her shout “get off me” and “get out of my flat.”

“His political team thought it would be best if they broke up before he entered No. 10,” one person who was close to his campaign tells me. But Carrie Johnson is shrewd. And as Boris himself has said: “There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.” When a bizarre photo was leaked soon after the fight, of the two holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes in a garden in Sussex, it became clear that the relationship was being stage-managed. The fight was soon forgotten. Boris Johnson became prime minister and called an election for mid-December. He won a huge majority, as the Tories swept aside the Labour Party in many of the latter’s traditional working-class seats.

That Christmas, Boris and Carrie jetted off to celebrate their success in Mustique. They stayed in an accommodation provided by a party donor. By the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading across the world, they had good news to share. “Many of you already know but for my friends that still don’t, we got engaged at the end of last year . . . and we’ve got a baby hatching early summer,” Carrie wrote on Instagram eleven days after Boris’s divorce from Marina Wheeler was finalized. “Feel incredibly blessed.”

She saw in him a project, insiders say, a man with huge popularity but few allies and friends, a right-wing political beast to be relaunched with the tastes of sensitive millennials in mind. If Boris is known for being good with words, Carrie is known for being more brand focused. As Boris set his sights on becoming prime minister, Carrie set out to clean up his shabby image, in the hope that it would broaden his political appeal. She put him on a diet, gave him a sleek haircut, and at one point had him contemplating veganism. It’s a world away from the picture painted by Petronella Wyatt, who described him “lunching on bacon butties and Mars bars before gorging on sausages and processed cheese.”

Carrie has assembled an impressive court and is more media-savvy than most within the government. Her former boyfriend Harry Cole is now the political editor at the Sun, the United Kingdom’s most popular tabloid. Alex Wickham, who oversees the British edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, is believed to be Wilfred Johnson’s godfather. Wickham’s daily email, read forensically each morning by people in Westminster, rarely mentions the prime minister’s wife, even when she is leading the news elsewhere.

When I’ve written about Mrs. Johnson, I’ve experienced firsthand how her operation works. The Downing Street press office seems terrified of her. She is said to feed information to contacts to see where it then appears, and will turn on those she feels she cannot trust. Both she and the prime minister are known to be quite paranoid about stories leaking out of Downing Street.

In recent years, ministerial spouses have normally had their own office paid for by taxpayers, to help them manage their commitments, but when Carrie stepped into the role, she deliberately avoided setting one up, opting instead to employ a communications expert paid for by the Conservative Party. Work meetings are held in the flat, under the guise of soirees. “Decisions are made by WhatsApp and over glasses of wine in the flat,” explains one staff member. “It would be easier for everyone if there was an official record of what she was doing.”

Soon after Carrie announced their engagement, the prime minister found himself in the hospital with COVID-19, and the United Kingdom—along with much of the rest of the world—was in lockdown. There was real concern that Boris wouldn’t survive. About three weeks after he left intensive care, Wilfred was born. By all accounts, it was a very difficult time for the couple.

Life became even more complicated later that spring, when Dominic Cummings was accused of making an illicit 260-mile trip from London to County Durham during the lockdown. Johnson stood by his adviser in spite of national outrage, but things were not the same again. Cummings had decided that Johnson—whom he’d helped put into Downing Street—had been wrong to resist lockdowns, and he started to arrange for the prime minister to be marginalized within his own government.

“Fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job,” Cummings later said, “and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions, and push other things through against his wishes.” The prime minister initially refused to believe reports that his top adviser was working against him, but Carrie helped convince him that this was the case. Until then, she had been seen as playing the traditional role of the prime minister’s spouse: silent and supportive. Now she emerged as a power broker.

Some of Johnson’s most significant allies found themselves cast aside, including Cummings. The Dom people were out; the Carrie people—or as they are known in Westminster, the FOCs, Friends of Carrie—were in. First to go was Lee Cain, the prime minister’s communications chief and, like Cummings, a veteran of the Vote Leave campaign. Oliver Lewis, a Cummings ally, left his job as the prime minister’s union adviser. The prime minister’s former chief of staff, Lord Udny-Lister, who had worked closely with Johnson since his time as mayor of London, also left. “Most of the people close to Boris have been cut out,” explains one former No. 10 staffer. “Johnson is quite a lonely figure.”

Carrie was accused by her enemies of expunging Johnson’s old tribe, the very people who helped bring him to power on the back of Brexit. Her allies—also a formidable political force—believe this to be vicious slander. But it was revealing to see who came into government after this mass exodus. Henry Newman, a close friend of Carrie, is now a senior adviser. He is part of a triumvirate that Boris refers to as the “three musketeers.” The others—Henry Cook and Meg Powell-Chandler—are also Carrie’s allies. Simone Finn became Boris Johnson’s deputy chief of staff in February. She is a good friend of Carrie’s, and hosted an ABBA-themed thirtieth birthday party for her in 2018.

In June, when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was secretly filmed snogging his mistress in his office, he promptly resigned from his role for having broken COVID rules. Sajid Javid, the former chancellor of the exchequer, was appointed to the role. He is yet another FOC: she once worked as his aide, and he was a guest at her ABBA party.

One of Carrie Johnson’s best friends, Nimco Ali—a thirty-eight-year-old activist who campaigns against female genital mutilation—is regularly sent out to fight for Carrie in the press. Ali has described Boris as a “true feminist.” She was made an adviser to the Home Office, given an Order of the British Empire award, and supposedly asked to be Wilfred’s godmother. A confidante reports that she also spent Christmas with the prime minister and his wife at the Downing Street residence last year, despite pandemic restrictions on holiday gatherings. (“The prime minister and Mrs. Johnson follow coronavirus rules at all times,” a spokesperson told me, without denying the claim; Ali did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Despite its perks, life in Downing Street can be oppressive. Margot Asquith, the wife of H. H. Asquith, prime minister from 1908 to 1916, referred to the Downing Street buildings as “liver-colored and squalid” and said she couldn’t imagine how she and her husband could live there. Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol described the No. 10 flat as having the appearance of “an extended railway carriage.” Most spouses prefer Chequers, the country residence in Buckinghamshire, and Mrs. Johnson is said to be no exception.

It was the Blair family who made the decision to move from No. 10 to No. 11, which is technically part of the chancellor of the exchequer’s residence (the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, lives with his family in the smaller No. 10 flat). Samantha Cameron, who lived at No. 11 from 2010 to 2016, damned it with faint praise for its “solid concrete floors” and “bomb-proof double glazing.” “When you’re in the flat it’s incredibly quiet,” she told the BBC. “You feel like a princess in a tower.”

Mrs. Johnson seems to know the feeling; she is said to model both her fashion sense and her press operations on Catherine, the duchess of Cambridge, Prince William’s wife. A confidant told me that Carrie is often preoccupied with the duchess, and expressed bitterness about Kate’s ability to generate positive items about herself in the British press.

But while Carrie’s and Kate’s stories are similar (they are both upper-middle-class women thrust into public life because of the men they chose to marry), their roles are constitutionally different. British media has started referring to Carrie Johnson as our “first lady,” which seems to be the title she seeks. But Britain has a monarchy at the ceremonial head of state, so there is no formal role for the spouses of prime ministers, who have historically remained private figures. Their focus is presumed to be on family life and, more recently, their own careers. Recent spouses have worked throughout their time in No. 10: Cherie Blair continued her job as a barrister, Samantha Cameron stayed with the luxury goods company Smythson, and Philip May kept his role as an investment manager.

Before having Wilfred, Carrie was employed by the advocacy organization Oceana, where she worked with Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation on its Vibrant Oceans project. Since returning from maternity leave, she has taken up a new job (while still acting as a consultant for Oceana) as head of communications for the Aspinall Foundation, an animal rights charity. The charity is planning to fly thirteen elephants from a zoo in Kent to live in the wild in Kenya, although the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife has said it has not been made aware of such plans. Any attempt to scrutinize Carrie Johnson’s growing political influence is deemed misogynistic. Previously, a prime minister’s spouse would have faced minimal intrusion from the press—and rightly so, as they have, almost always, confined themselves to a private role. But the current situation is different. It is precisely because Boris struggles to build personal relationships that Carrie is the most powerful person around him.

For now, Carrie has reined in her husband’s instinct for chaos. Among staff at No. 10, Carrie is known as “upstairs,” and Boris is said to spend more and more time downstairs. “He likes to read The Spectator late at night,” one former aide tells me. A copy of The Lost Homestead, the new book by his ex-wife Marina Wheeler, has been spotted open in his office. “He doesn’t want to take the copy upstairs,” the former aide adds. Meanwhile, it has been reported that the gold has started to peel off the walls, and the decorators have been called back in.

 is the executive editor of The Spectator.

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