Partners who pull the strings

Is Carrie Symonds the real power at Number 10?

Over 2020 it became obvious that the manoeuvrings at the very top of the Boris Johnson administration have grown increasingly Machiavellian. No sooner does one puppet master appear to be firmly pulling the political puppet strings before another steps out of the shadows to snatch them away and take control. Downing Street insiders are claiming that the current behind-the-scenes number one is none other than Johnson’s live-in partner, Carrie Symonds. In a pre-Christmas double coup, she managed to take the scalps of firstly the PM’s director of communications, Lee Cain, followed swiftly by his chief advisor and now former Number 10 top gun, Dominic Cummings.

Sources say the determined and resourceful Ms Symonds heads an all-female and all-powerful gang of four, the other members being Home Secretary Priti Patel, former Guardian journalist Allegra Stratton, appointed last year to head Boris’s Press briefings, and Munira Mirza, head of the Downing Street policy unit. It’s a formidable lineup, and if these insider reports are to be believed – and we have no reason not to believe them – the situation raises important questions. It would be naive in the extreme to believe that unelected men and women are not forming and shaping government policy. After all, that’s what political advisors and strategists, under their many and various job titles, are there for. But not only is Carrie Symonds unelected, she does not have an official job at Number 10 or indeed anywhere in the Government. She has in the past worked for the Conservative Party and was briefly their head of communications, but that was back in 2018. Can it be right then, that she is now arguably the most powerful woman in British politics?

Prime Ministers in recent history have undoubtedly discussed their worries with their partners. Cherie Blair famously phoned female MPs before the vote authorising the Iraq War to ask them to back her husband Tony, and both Sarah Brown for Gordon, and Samantha Cameron for David, also voiced public support for their husbands during difficult times. It was well known that Denis Thatcher listened and sometimes offered advice to the Iron Lady, and equally well known that the Iron Lady generally listened to that advice. But this new situation is different: this is power and influence of a higher degree, directly impacting on public appointments and policy. So is it acceptable?

What our surveys show

Carrie Symonds was seen as being behind at least one government appointment in 2020 as well as the Number 10 coup, and the Home Office confirmed that Symonds’ best friend, Nimco Ali, godmother to Johnson’s and Symonds’ son, was given an advisory role on tackling violence against women without the post being advertised. In our surveys we asked if Symonds wields too much power over her partner, and opinion was closer than might have been expected. Our surveys revealed that 46% of us either strongly or somewhat agree that the Prime Minister’s partner does appear to have too much influence, while 33% feel she does not, while 21% said they don’t know. Opinions on whether or not a political leader’s partner should ever give such advice were much more clear-cut.

A heavy majority, 74%, think it is unreasonable to believe that a partner would never give such advice with just 16% disagreeing. Our third poll also shows we have a high degree of sympathy, with 69% in agreement, for the idea that the female partners of powerful male leaders are too often unfairly characterised as “Lady Macbeth” figures.

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