Last week, Carrie Symonds, the girlfriend of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, made her first public speech since moving into Downing Street this month. At an event with Birdfair, she said that politicians have a ‘gigantic responsibility’ to care for the environment. Symonds currently works as a senior adviser for US environmental campaign group Oceana, having recently quit her role as a director of communications for the Conservative Party. It was also revealed that she would become the first girlfriend, not wife, to attend Balmoral with the Prime Minister.
It didn’t take much time for the press to start praising Symonds. The British edition of Elle already praised her ‘First Girlfriend’ style. Tatler, hardly the most critical publication in terms of the conservative upper classes, called her the ‘long-haired siren’ and ‘modern force’ behind Johnson’s campaign to succeed Theresa May. The Spectator praised her for defining ‘what it means to be a millennial conservative’. Just this week, I was watching one of the morning talk-shows and they could shut up about how much they loved Symonds. It’s probably the best Boris-adjacent press the new Prime Minister has had since he entered office.
Britain doesn’t have a designated First Lady/Gentleman role in the same way America does. The spouses of the Prime Minister are not expected to quit their jobs and dedicate themselves full-time to the nation. Nobody got mad when Philip May kept his head down and didn’t host garden parties for charities while Theresa was digging herself into an exceptionally deep hole as PM. Frankly, this is a good thing all-round for British politics, which remains depressingly archaic and typically loves this sort of tradition that relies on outdated notions of power and family. However, that’s not to say the notion of being the Prime Minister’s romantic partner is free from expectations or obligations. You’re still desired for those photo-ops, for one.
Well, you are if you’re a woman. Samantha Cameron, the wife of David, was lavished with praise for her sartorial choices, while the wife of the then leader of the opposition Ed Miliband, Justine Thornton, was picked over for hers. They’re still expected to give interviews sitting by their husband’s side, praising their natural leadership abilities but always insisting they won’t be the quiet wife on the side-lines, even when that’s a disheartening inevitability. You are still expected to be an asset rather than an individual. Whatever you do will reflect on your political spouse, positively or otherwise. So, even though the role of First Spouse has no official standing in British politics, it’s still one burdened with expectations and the media spin to match. Some are more willing to play along than others but you’ll struggle to find a First Lady (and let’s be honest, Philip May doesn’t really count here) since Cherie Booth-Blair who isn’t greasing the wheels at least a little bit.
In that context, and in our current age of political chaos with a cruelly press-savvy man in the highest office of the land, how do you solve a problem like Carrie Symonds? It’s 2019 so there’s hardly any scandal over the sitting Prime Minister not being married to his partner (although I remain pretty sure that any Labour leader with a girlfriend only a few years older than their oldest kid would face far more criticism than BoJo has ever faced). She didn’t hold his hand as he entered Number 10 but she was on the side-lines in a dress that was just eye-catching enough. The message was clear: She is part of the package deal of PM Johnson.
Johnson is notorious for his manipulations of the press and his decades-long playing of a very particular game of spin. We’ve talked before about how he used the comedic buffoon persona honed on appearances of Have I Got News For You to his benefit, accruing power and popularity through the pretence of adorable ineptitude. He’s also a man who has clung to a discomfiting image as a lothario, long after such notions of playboy charm became outdated and wildly creepy. This is a man who has had multiple extra-marital affairs while married to his now-former wife, Marina Wheeler, including one instance where a mistress had an abortion and another love child ended up being confirmed via a court case. The reality of him shacking up with a woman 24 years his senior has barely made a blip in the media landscape, which doesn’t happen without some behind-the-scenes machinations, especially when you’ve spent years being known as the man who regularly cheated on your wife.
But the Symonds conundrum has another sticky side-effect to be dealt with. Before he became the new Tory Party leader and Prime Minister, Johnson had to deal with the fallout from a loud domestic argument with Symonds that led to a visit from the police. His neighbours reported ‘loud altercation involving screaming, shouting and banging.’ One neighbour told the Guardian that ‘they heard a woman screaming followed by “slamming and banging”. At one point Symonds could be heard telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”.’ It’s an obviously unnerving instance and one that both Johnson and the Tory-friendly press pushed against. The neighbours were smeared as leftist insurgents out to damage his leadership campaign. Newspapers claimed it was a mere argument between lovers, the kind we all have, and that their privacy shouldn’t be invaded. Selected newspapers revealed a photograph of Boris and Symonds looking loved-up together in a local pub garden, in an image that represented the very antithesis of spontaneity and authenticity. It was PR spin, obvious to anyone with a pulse, but it was enough for his supporters to prove that no damage had been done. Whatever happened during that argument, it was clear that both parties involved wanted to steer the narrative in their favour.
The press love to spin any action by a vaguely powerful woman as one of inherently feminist value. You see this every time a milquetoast liberal talks about not agreeing with Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Ivanka Trump’s politics but appreciating how they do their job with dignity or whatever nonsense buzzword is popular that day. The mostly silent woman standing beside the bigoted egotist who garnered power through weaponized racism and xenophobia gets to be fetishized as a golden idol of exceptionalism merely because she is there. At the very least, she gets to be another clothes horse to fawn over, as fashion magazines once again pretend the dress and heels have no political meaning or shield-like force because of who is wearing them.
The chances are that Symonds won’t be modelled as a Michelle Obama or even a Melania Trump. We don’t have the structures in place to make that happen. However, we should always be skeptical of the softened narrative that surrounds the political spouse. This is a woman, a former Tory advisor, who knows exactly what kind of power being in Johnson’s life as his partner provides. The women may change but the world keeps spinning.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.