‘You want a Prime Minister’s spouse who’s interested rather than doesn’t care’

As a former Tory communications director and ministerial aide, Carrie Symonds has both strong views on her party, together with the powerful network that comes from a decade working at the heart of the Conservatives.

This weekend, a series of toxic claims and counterclaims about the role of the Prime Minister’s fiancee in the departure of two of Boris Johnson’s most senior aides have raised questions about the influence that Ms Symonds’s views (and friends) have on the workings of No 10 Downing Street.

Just days ago, Dominic Cummings (see below), Mr Johnson’s chief aide, and Lee Cain, his communications director, were ousted from No 10 after the Prime Minister heard claims that he and Ms Symonds had been the subject of hostile briefings.

Their departure came after a major row over the appointment of Allegra Stratton, a longstanding acquaintance of Ms Symonds, as the Prime Minister’s new chief spokesman, despite the firm advice of Mr Cain.

Ms Symonds went on to insist that Mr Johnson should not appoint Mr Cain as chief of staff, with sources claiming that she was supported by figures such as Munira Mirza, the head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit. Ms Mirza has told friends that the claims about her involvement are untrue.

This weekend, senior sources said that Ms Symonds’s influence on Mr Johnson’s work as Prime Minister had appeared to grow steadily since the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation with Covid-19 in April.

However, a senior insider claimed that Ms Symonds appeared "determined" to play a significant role in the workings of the Government, "and that’s the heart of the problem."

Carrie Symonds arrives at the counting centre in during the UK's general election last December

Credit: Toby Melville/REUTERS

The source said she clearly had strong views about "wholesale change at No 10", adding that the former Tory communications director is perceived as "wanting to run the Government by WhatsApp from the flat."

Another source said Ms Symonds used the No 11 flat "as a sort of private office".

The flat above No 11 Downing Street that Ms Symonds shares with Mr Johnson and their baby Wilfred has become the centre of intrigue for No 10 staff who have, since last summer, observed a steady stream of familiar faces paying social visits to the Prime Minister’s fiancee, while the official cogs of government turn downstairs.

Visitors to "Carrie’s Court", as it has been dubbed by insiders, include Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone, two close friends of Ms Symonds who are special advisors to Michael Gove, Ms Stratton, and several journalists with whom the 32-year-old also enjoys longstanding friendships.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and partner Carrie Symonds gesture as they arrive at 10 Downing Street on the morning after the December 2019 general election

Credit: Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS

Ms Symonds has described Mr Newman and Mr Grimstone as two of her "favourite people", and posted pictures of herself campaigning with the pair, along with Lord Goldsmith and other Tory advisers, during the December election campaign.

Another regular visitor to the No 11 flat is Sarah Vaughan-Brown, a former director of corporate communications at ITN, who was hired as Ms Symonds’s personal adviser in February, with her salary funded by the Conservative Party.

At the time of her appointment, Tory insiders say Ms Vaughan-Brown’s role would include helping with Ms Symonds’s charitable work in areas such as the environment and animal welfare.

Also close to Ms Symonds are John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary who is said to have benefited from her backing over his return to government in February; Lord Goldsmith, the environment minister with whom she is closely aligned on green issues; and Sajid Javid, for whom she worked between 2016 and 2018.

Intriguingly, Downing St sources did not deny Ms Symonds’s influence over Mr Johnson on No 10 matters, simply insisting that she avoided getting involved in the minutiae of individual policies and would never attempt to overrule the advice of officials.

One senior No 10 source said: "Her expertise and her professional area of knowledge is the Tory party and policy. That’s what she did, so she obviously has a view. Every spouse has a view. Theresa May listened to  Philip May. If she would be making big decisions, she would go and have a chat with Philip. So it’s not unusual. And it’s probably to be welcomed."

The source added: "You probably do want a PM with a spouse that’s engaged and interesting rather than doesn’t give a crap and would rather them not be at work all the time. It’s a good thing, it’s not surprising, and she’s very good at this stuff."

The source acknowledged that Ms Symonds "has views about his office, she has views about his team, because she has views about the kind of man she knows he is". 

She thought Mr Cain’s work was "inadequate" and "didn’t like how her husband-to-be felt about how [Mr Cain and Mr Cummings] ran his office."

"But she wouldn’t seek to think that she had more expertise than the official advice he just been given."

However other insiders claim that Ms Symonds’s influence has had a destabilising effect on the work of government taking place in No 10.

“There is a set of meetings, decisions are taken, then the PM goes upstairs to the flat, then from 9pm WhatsApp messages start to arrive with him changing his mind," a senior insider said. "No decision is ever final.”

Insiders allege that Ms Symonds has been responsible for a series of government U-turns. But a Downing Street source said: “These claims are laughable."

Some have accused Ms Symonds’s detractors of sexism. But one female former ministerial aide said that her clear involvement in the appointment of Ms Stratton and departure of Mr Cain and Mr Cummings had brought her firmly back into the rough and tumble of Westminster politics.

The former aide said: "She’s fair game now."