Politics

Carrie Johnson? A £840 wallpaper snob or the power behind Johnson’s throne?

What would a ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ look like to you? It would probably take the form of a post-shopping spree bank statement, the one showing you blew £1300 there on a Fitzrovia Snuggler settee because, you know, it had a cool kind of Bridgerton-meets-Central Perk vibe. In other words not a nightmare at all, but something to aspire to and save up for. A change from IKEA.

For Carrie Johnson, wife of New York-born, Eton- and Oxford-educated Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the phrase was snobbish shorthand for somebody else’s taste. She is reported to have said it about the décor in the four bedroom, flat-above-the-shop Downing Street residence she inherited from Theresa May and, yes, it was intended as a slight. (Important note: add a mental ‘citation needed’ to the phrase ‘reported to have’. You can chase the John Lewis quotation for hours on the web without ever finding a water-tight source for it).

Then again, it’s the stories which appear to reveal a believable truth which really ‘cut through’, to use a phrase beloved of psephologists, and that John Lewis tale has certainly cut through. “Rich woman’s nightmare, poor woman’s dream” was one commentator’s take on it.

Likewise the revelations about the £840-per-roll wallpaper provided by Johnson’s interior designer chum Lulu Lytle as part of a controversial Downing Street renovation. I don’t know what sound jaws make when they drop, but you could hear it everywhere when that news broke.

Carrie Johnson’s background in communications may make her think she has a handle on ‘optics’ (another favourite of jargon-jockeys and political junkies) but the rash of ‘Let them eat cake’/‘Carrie Antoinette’ memes doing the rounds as a result of all this show many people think optics aren’t perhaps her strong suit after all. Optics only work if you can see what real people think, surely?

And privilege such as Carrie Johnson has enjoyed for most of her life brings its own particular set of blinkers. Not for nothing did the Dominic Cummings clique in Downing Street christen her Princess Nut Nut.

They are no more, of course. They have been expelled, or sent down, or defenestrated, or whatever the correct terminology is for the losers in the sort of internecine warfare which breaks out between a Prime Minister’s consigliere and his chatelaine. (If Carrie Johnson has less ‘good taste’ than I imagine and is a fan of The Godfather she might have the phrase “Dominic Cummings sleeps with the fishes” turned into a bling-tastic neon sign to hang in her bathroom. Here’s hoping anyway).

Few people paid much attention to Prime Ministerial spouses until the 1980s (or, to put it another way, nobody cared until Mrs PM became a Mr). But after Denis Thatcher was immortalised/satirised/skewered (delete where applicable) by Private Eye and Spitting Image, the role came under more serious scrutiny. Rightly so. When Tony Blair were installed in Downing Street in 1997, it mattered that Cherie Blair was a top QC. A few years later, when Samantha Cameron took up residence above No 10, it mattered that she was creative director of a luxury accessories brand.

Use Denis Thatcher, Cherie Blair and Samantha Cameron to triangulate a central point and you might just arrive at Carrie Johnson. Like Mr Thatcher, she has been relentlessly mocked. Like Mrs Blair, she has the ear of a Prime Minister. And like Mrs Cameron she has led a gilded, Notting Hill-y existence in and around the sort of establishment organisations which matter to the people in power at Westminster.

In her case that means education at the same West London girls-only private school as Annunziata Rees-Mogg and Nigella Lawson, a job at Conservative Party HQ, then a PR gig with a cool, non-profit conservation charity to highlight her eco credentials. Oh, and her father co-founded The Independent. So, like her predecessors, Carrie Johnson matters.

Her husband’s stated truths generally require a prefix (take your pick from half-, un-, mis- and non-) and his demeanour, like his approach to governing, seems entirely un-serious (that smirk!).

Everything’s a joke until it isn’t, and even then there’s a quotation from Plutarch on hand or, if the worst comes to the worst, a pair of un-shined shoes to stare at in a sham show of embarrassment and humility. Underpinning it all is a gargantuan and corrosive sense of entitlement. If like attracts like, then it’s safe to assume Mrs Johnson shares that sense of entitlement and is prey to all of its accompanying faults. That’s the truth those memes gesture to in so unsubtle a fashion.

Of course memes pick at perceived flaws and foibles, and either exaggerate them for comic effect or try to weaponise them for more nefarious aims. The internet being the internet, women are often disproportionately on the receiving end and we need to bear that in mind. Memes do not tend to celebrate strengths either, but that doesn’t mean Carrie Johnson has none.

She has worked as a special advisor to Sajid Javid, currently UK health secretary, has campaigned against female genital mutilation with her friend Nimco Ali, and was a key player in her friend Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to become London mayor. There is talk of a ‘court’ at No 10 in which she is queen and even an acronym, FOC, standing for Friend Of Carrie. If you want to get on, you need to be one is the unwritten law.

Just ahead of the first lockdown, back when she was still Carrie Symonds, Society magazine Tatler commissioned a profile of her from journalist Freddy Gray. He found that she was liked and highly regarded in Westminster but not at all liked among what you might call the Johnson family bubble. Both of those facts should recommend her to the neutral.

“She’s the best political operator I have ever worked with” and “Everyone who knows her knows she’s brilliant” were just two of the gushing tributes Gray collected from “political players” at Westminster on his trawl through his contacts book.

Her friends (even ex-boyfriend Harry Cole, currently political editor of The Sun) are loyal. Her enemies, such as Dominic Cummings, don’t seem to last long. In Tatler’s final estimation she is an “innately political creature” who is married to “a notoriously sex-mad Prime Minister”, a fact which makes her “just about the most influential woman in Britain”.

So which Carrie Johnson is the real one – the Marie Antoinette figure who’s so out-of-touch she spends £112, 549 renovating a flat, or the Thomas Cromwell, power-behind-the-throne character running operations through a team of loyal appointees? Or, put it another way, which one do you want to believe in most?

Either way, perhaps it’s Dominic Cummings who will have the last laugh. If the much-anticipated report into Downing Street parties does point the finger of blame at the culture within the Prime Minister’s workplace, and if heads roll as a result, it’s Mrs Johnson’s appointees who might have a metaphorical date with Madame La Guillotine. And won’t the workers in meme love that?

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