SARAH SANDS: Jumped-up women? No, the death of the Lad’s Club will unleash the best of Boris Johnson
Not since Henry VIII has there been such a public row over the influence and power of consorts and advisers. At the centre is Carrie Symonds, likened by some to Anne Boleyn: capricious, demanding and overwrought. In other words, it is the old story: cherchez la femme.
The rants and tears that came from Dominic Cummings’s team, followed by an operatic walk-out by their leader, suggests the drama queens were not all in the No 10 flat.
I asked one of the enraged Vote Leave supporters what they thought had happened. The message came back: ‘Jumped-up women!’
Carrie Symonds (pictured with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019), likened by some to Anne Boleyn: capricious, demanding and overwrought. In other words, it is the old story: cherchez la femme
This has become something of a theme. The broadcaster Andrew Neil spoke of what he curiously called Boris Johnson’s ‘bidie in’ – a Scottish term for unmarried, live-in partner. The implication is that the PM’s fiancee is using pillow talk to control policy, and that no good can come of it.
First, let’s remember that Symonds is a former director of communications for the Tory Party. She is extremely well connected and understands the value of clear messaging. According to her supporters, she has kept her head down and held her tongue, but MPs wanted her to intervene after the shambles of the past months.
John Whittingdale, the Brexiteer Tory MP for whom Carrie once worked, says: ‘She is extremely able, enormously likeable, fiercely loyal and dedicated.’
Symonds (pictured in March) is a former director of communications for the Tory Party. She is extremely well connected and understands the value of clear messaging
The second point to make is that Carrie unquestionably has her fiance’s best interests at heart. She felt he was not being well served and last week was the moment she stepped in, warning Boris against making Lee Cain his chief of staff.
All hell broke loose and steel entered the PM’s soul. Why was his team squabbling over jobs during a pandemic and with Brexit negotiations at a critical stage? And why was his team asking him to choose between them and the mother of his child?
Meanwhile, the ‘jumped-up women’ had formed an allegiance. Enter Allegra Stratton, the new No 10 press secretary. Her role was dreamed up by Cummings and Cain to control the political lobby but the job took on a life of its own. Stratton insisted on having direct access to the PM so she could reflect his views rather than what Cummings and Cain wanted him to believe. At this point, Cain turned against her.
But Symonds saw Stratton as a huge asset. The former ITV, BBC and Guardian journalist had been working as the Treasury’s director of communications and had refashioned Rishi Sunak’s image brilliantly, making this little-known Treasury nerd seem cool and connected. Symonds yearned for the same magic touch for Boris.
Carrie (pictured in 2019) unquestionably has her fiance’s best interests at heart. She felt he was not being well served and last week was the moment she stepped in, warning Boris against making Lee Cain his chief of staff
A third ‘jumped-up woman’ stepped forward: the highly regarded Downing Street policy adviser Munira Mirza. This trio –who combine conviction with diplomacy – are part of what has been sneeringly described as a Downing Street Sisterhood.
Stratton has been painted as a Notting Hill metropolitan, but the truth is she joined the Boris team having been inspired by its agenda of wanting to level up society. Significantly, Symonds made sure Stratton was paid in line with the men. But she did not intervene further, apart from wanting to ensure Stratton had support, knowing how lonely it can be as a woman in the spotlight.
What are the other tensions between this latterday Anne Boleyn and Cummings, by implication a modern version of Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell? Symonds, 32, shares the progressive outlook of her generation. She is passionate about the environment and she is pro trans rights. She has her eye on the new Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration and wants a sympathetic exchange at next year’s G7 Summit, hosted in the UK.
Symonds saw Stratton (pictured) as a huge asset. The former ITV, BBC and Guardian journalist had been working as the Treasury’s director of communications and had refashioned Rishi Sunak’s image brilliantly
She is ‘a stonking Brexiteer’ but cannot understand why people are still fighting an old war. As one of her supporters stresses: ‘Get it done and move on.’ For Symonds, next year should be about jobs, trade, the environment and saving the Union. That’s her brand of Conservatism.
By contrast, say her friends, Cain and Cummings were ‘just wandering around with a box of matches – they are not even Conservatives’.
One lesson from the Tudors is that it’s a mistake for advisers to regard themselves as indispensable. Symonds’s confidante says: ‘Did they honestly think Boris was going to dump Carrie, out of loyalty to Lee Cain? She is his bride- to-be, smart, beautiful and caring about what happens to him.’
By contrast, say her friends, Cain and Cummings (pictured in 2019) were ‘just wandering around with a box of matches – they are not even Conservatives’
Understandably, given that she was eventually executed, Symonds’s friends don’t compare her to Anne Boleyn but to her successor in Henry VIII’s bed. ‘Carrie is Jane Seymour – she is going to win out.’
I have personal experience of Cain, or ‘Caino’ as he likes to be called. When I edited the Today programme on Radio 4, I felt the chill of the self-styled ‘Lad’s Club’. It began on election night. I texted his team to congratulate them on their extraordinary 80-seat majority and ask which Minister would be interviewed on the programme. I hoped – and expected – it might be Boris himself, wreathed in victory. ‘No one,’ flashed the response. I frowned and texted back: ‘How is the spirit of healing going?’ A subsequent boycott of the Today programme by Ministers lasted from that moment until March – although it was never spelt out and never officially ended. It was a threat hanging over us.
There were briefings that the programme was not relevant any more because Cummings did not listen to it. Cummings himself explained to me the relationship would change when he heard from other people that the programme had changed. Cain, his enforcer, said that we had not shown sufficient remorse for misjudging the EU referendum. Today has always been at the centre of controversies but I tried to explain to Cain that we were neither in the ranks of believers or unbelievers. We were the news. Cain was implacable.
One cannot help but admire the sheer creative destruction of Cummings’s mind (pictured leaving 10 Downing Street on Friday)
One cannot help but admire the sheer creative destruction of Cummings’s mind. The great disruptor joined forces with Boris Johnson, the Lord of Misrule, and they changed the course of British history.
But with Brexit accomplished, it became a question of who rules? Cummings and his team may have been political talismans and Boris owed his Prime Ministership to them but he did not need them any more. The debt is now paid.
A defining characteristic of leadership is ruthlessness. Johnson is ready to enter his second phase. As London mayor, he moved from turmoil to order. It was a pattern he learned from the Classics. First the popular wars, then the years of statesmanship and peace.
There is now talk of a ‘softening’ of government – in other words, more ‘female-friendly’. I reckon the departure of the Lad’s Club signals order rather than softness.
Johnson has always been more at ease in the company of women. His relationship with his mother is close. He took his intellectual position on Brexit from his then wife Marina Wheeler.
Now he is listening to Carrie Symonds. A new No10 era begins.
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