Carrie Symonds is not some ingenue blond playmate of a rich and powerful older man. It is almost worse than that. As the partner of the new prime minister, she has become the visible authentication of the Boris Johnson brand: that’s Boris the priapic, convention-busting, law-unto-himself, human bulldozer; a man of as many conflicting opinions as wives and mistresses and more children than principles. For him, moving his girlfriend into Downing Street while he is still married to someone else is one more way of saying that the normal rules don’t apply.
I’m only guessing, but it seems realistic to assume that Symonds knows all this and is ready for the role as the first ever live-in girlfriend at No 10. She is in the communications business herself, after all. She did eight years at Conservative party headquarters, peaking with a year as boss of party communications. Hardly a role she’s likely to submit for the public affairs category of PR Week’s 2019 awards, but then, in the lipstick-on-a-pig challenge, selling the Tories after the catastrophe of the 2017 general election must come pretty near the top.
She is used to hanging out with senior politicians. She first met Johnson when she was seconded to his mayoral re-election campaign. She knows her way round Downing Street. Last summer, about the time gossip surfaced about her relationship with Johnson, she moved on from the Tory party to an entirely different and strikingly unpolitical role as an adviser for Oceana, a global marine protection charity.
Yet, of all the dramatic changes of tone Johnson has brought with him as prime minister, perhaps the most remarkable and the least observed aspect of the handover of power is that the traditional role of Downing Street as the arbiter of public respectability has been, well, redefined. The gap between Theresa May, a prime minister of unimpeachable moral uprightness, whose worst acknowledged sin was to run through a field of standing wheat and whose idea of a good time is to act as steward at a constituency fun run, to Johnson – a serial adulterer, a man who has been sacked by at least two bosses for lying and who is openly attacked by former colleagues as a charlatan? In its own way, it represents a reversal as startling, if not as significant, as the US turn from Obama to Trump.
All Downing Street wives find they have a role that the media requires them to inhabit. Carrie Symonds has the thankless role of embodying this transformation to the age of Johnson. More, she has to lend it a kind of cover: she has to put it beyond question. For it is important to remember that Johnson’s bid for power only once looked fragile. It faltered in the aftermath of reports that the police had been called to the home he shared with Symonds after neighbours became alarmed by a late-night dispute – the police took no action – and it only regained momentum after a media campaign backing a reversal of the traditional model: the idea that even a prime minister is entitled to privacy. A readers’ poll in the Daily Express enthusiastically confirmed that Johnson’s private life was his own. In his favour, on this Johnson has the merit of consistency. He could never be accused of hypocrisy.
There is nothing new about politicians having extramarital affairs, nor their partners doing the same. The list of prime ministerial philandering is long and almost certainly far from complete. David Lloyd George was a notorious womaniser, once allegedly interviewed while in bed with two women (although a decade after he had left Downing Street), who finally married his mistress after 30 years. Herbert Asquith wrote passionate letters to Venetia Stanley, a friend of his daughter’s, during a ministerial argument over the carnage on the western front. Labour prime ministers were no more uxorious, merely more discreet. Ramsay MacDonald allegedly had a long relationship with a Vietnamese woman in a house a short walk from Westminster.
But, in the face of stories this weekend involving the arrangements for the traditional prime ministerial visit to Balmoral in August – and whether it would break royal protocol for Symonds to accompany Johnson before his divorced is finalised – the Downing Street line is that this isn’t the 1920s, but 2019. There is no such thing, by implication, as respectability, a word redefined in a special Johnsonian way so that it smothers its underlying reference to problematic ideas such as morality.
Obviously, ideas have changed since the mid-20th century, when Dorothy, the wife of the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan – and a daughter of the ducal Devonshire family – had a long relationship with another Conservative MP, Bob Boothby, a fact that her husband reluctantly accommodated for 30 years. Throughout her life, the affair remained both widely known at Westminster and entirely unreported. Unsurprisingly, when Macmillan’s defence minister, John Profumo, was found in 1963 to have lied to the House of Commons about his intimate relationship with Christine Keeler, conducted while she was having an affair with the Russian military attache, raising genuine issues of security, the prime minister was ready to dismiss it as a private matter. His misjudgment marked the moment where British morality forked: one group saw what 1963 Philip Larkin poem Annus Mirabilis, about the affair, called the “invention of sex”. The others saw a decline in standards.
The Profumo affair was the first modern sex scandal. Ever since, policing politicians’ private lives has been a media staple, and what goes on behind the glossy black door of No 10 is treated with as much hypocritical reverence as if it was a template for the times.
From John Major’s misinterpreted attempt to return to basics (despite his infidelity) to May’s #MeToo crisis, in which a series of ministers were sacked for predatory sexual conduct, the history of Downing Street politics could be summed up as one unending contest between respectability and scandal. The prime minister’s role, according to the writer and Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson is “to marshall the forces of respectability … to uphold, both in his or her own person and as leader of the government, the standards of behaviour which command the support of respectable people”.
The question now is whether asking a media grown rich on prurience to accept Symonds as first girlfriend is just another appeal for tolerance of Johnson exceptionalism or something more. Could it be that his fans in the media-owning classes see him not as the admirable epitome of the new norm of social liberalism, but rather as the vehicle for the restoration of a status quo in which the private morality of powerful politicians is a matter only for them?
That might depend on where the bar for this particular type of “respectability” really lies. To most people, cohabitation is the new normal; it just hasn’t been tried at No 10 before. The statistics show that it is creeping up on marriage as the preferred form of coupledom. It is true that most couples still choose marriage, and less than a fifth cohabit, but that tots up to nearly 5 million people living together without any formal legal status. Another million cohabit with new partners after divorce. Many of them will be of the same generation as Symonds. And, if there are enough Tory millennials for there to be a type, then Symonds appears to be it: socially liberal, greenish, economically to the right. Johnson has a partner who is recognisable to younger voters, and it is clear from his early pronouncements as PM that he recognises the value of her brand, too. In each speech, there were nods to the green agenda sitting uneasily alongside less green pledges such as ending the ban on genetically modified organisms and the party’s commitment to a free vote on fox hunting.
In the end, it will likely be the weight of small-c conservative attitudes to marriage against the weight of attitudes to Johnson himself that decide. He is such a profoundly divisive character that those who love him do so in the face of his record and, probably, regardless of his personal life. For those who don’t, the list of reasons to dislike him stretches too far for his private arrangements to be decisive. But evidence suggests that the Brexit divide is a values divide and the latest YouGov polling shows that women are much less impressed with Johnson than men.
And while the question of Symonds’ status might be the most revealing of the dilemmas faced by female partners on the threshold of Downing Street, it is not the only one. Last week, she stood expressionless among Downing Street staff in a mirror image of Philip May at earlier prime ministerial lectern moments, although more strikingly dressed in pink. But, even if she wants to, she will struggle to stay invisible.
Being the prime ministerial wife (in very distinct opposition to being the PM’s husband) has probably always been a performance art, and the challenge is how to escape it. Since the 90s, when the media hit on attacking Cherie Blair as a way of undermining her husband, it has become a bitter contest between predators and their victim. She wanted to be recognised for what she was: a good lawyer with a successful independent career. But she knew she also had to play the traditional role and she never managed to do it in a way that reflected the status of her own professional life.
Her successors – Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron – learned from her miserable experience and managed more successfully. But Symonds understands the PR. She is a smart woman. It may be that her biggest headache is whether she has long enough in Downing Street to even unpack.