Serialised in The Mail on Sunday on 06 February 2022.
As a child of the Instagram generation, Carrie Johnson is a longtime devotee of social media. ‘This job means I get to do some incredible things,’ she posted proudly in December 2015 after attending a concert by renowned pianist Daniel Barenboim.
At the time she was Carrie Symonds, an adviser in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – a post that gave her one of the most fulfilling periods of her professional life: free access to sporting events, exhibitions, music festivals and all manner of cultural activities offered plentiful Instagram opportunities.
For example, at the annual Pride of Britain charity awards, she photographed the actress Barbara Windsor and the TV personality Kelly Osbourne.
Alongside them was the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. After Carrie posted the picture online, a friend wrote: ‘My God, your life! Soooo jealous!’ This was the first occasion when Johnson’s and Carrie’s paths are known to have crossed.
In June 2016, Carrie posted another photo on her Instagram page. It showed Johnson and two other senior politicians boarding the infamous Vote Leave red bus.
John Whittingdale, her former Brexiteer boss at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport says: ‘I cannot say that I introduced her to Boris, but I don’t think she knew him particularly well [before the Brexit campaign] and she will have come across him when she accompanied me to Vote Leave meetings.’
Some years later, Johnson confirmed that story in a speech, while thanking the Tory MP for helping change British history by supporting Leave. Whittingdale recalls: ‘He also said I’d changed his life in all sorts of ways, including the fact that I’d ‘helped bring him together with Carrie.’ ‘
Before many months had elapsed, the pair’s relationship would develop swiftly and dramatically.
By the autumn of 2017, Carrie was casting around for a new job, having completed a temporary placement with Sajid Javid, who was at the time Housing Secretary. She set her sights on a whole new challenge.
Her private life, too, was in a state of flux. Things between her and her long-term journalist boyfriend had cooled and she had become close to other men, one of whom was a married Conservative MP with a high public profile.
Although I have decided not to name him, I can say that he was somebody other than Boris Johnson.
They were even seen together in a quiet area of the House of Commons ‘not quite kissing but certainly much closer than a woman would normally stand next to a male colleague, put it like that,’ says a source. ‘The body language made it obvious something was happening.’
Even so, Johnson was at the forefront of her mind. One source recalls how, at this time, she began to quiz people about his personal life. ‘There was a period where she repeatedly asked about Boris, the state of his marriage and whether he was ‘available’,’ says the source.
‘It got to the point where it was impossible not to ask her if she and Boris had become involved.
At this suggestion, Carrie once made a vomiting sign by pretending to stick her fingers down her throat. I can only think she did this either to show that she genuinely found Boris physically unattractive, or just to put others off the scent.’
Hearing that then Foreign Secretary Johnson was looking for a new special adviser, Carrie approached him about the role.
To her chagrin, Johnson hired Lee Cain, Vote Leave’s broadcast communications strategist. But the matter would not end there.
In late 2017, civil servants at the Foreign Office advised Johnson to appoint a chief of staff. Installing somebody of the highest competence would, they believed, ease their collective post-Brexit burden. This suggestion seemed at first to fall on deaf ears.
But by the beginning of the following year, Johnson seemed keener on the plan. The person he had in mind for the plum, six-figure role? Carrie Symonds.
His allies were ‘aghast’, according to one source. She would have been out of her depth in such a senior post, they felt, with potentially disastrous consequences.
‘Everyone advised him not to do it,’ says a source. ‘They told him she had been over-promoted and that making her his chief of staff was ridiculous.’
By the spring of 2018, a small number of Johnson’s staff had become aware the couple were having an affair. Some were dismayed that he had betrayed his wife, Marina, whom they knew and liked. Others took the view that it was none of their business.
All now understood why Johnson had been so keen to hire Carrie as his chief of staff.
The relationship was to spell the end of his long marriage.
For Marina, Carrie is said to have represented the final humiliation.
Johnson’s infidelities had caused her and their four children much heartache over the years. In 2009 he had even fathered a daughter with another woman, Helen Macintyre. Marina told friends that she could take no more and she wanted to divorce. Johnson is said to have been stunned.
‘For Boris, Carrie was a fling,’ says a source close to these events. ‘He never expected to be with her long-term. He was shocked when Marina said she was divorcing him.
‘He never expected it. So he settled for Carrie.’
It would be only a question of time before reporters knew enough of the situation to write about it, and there was a growing list of clues for them to go on. Earlier in the summer, for example, it did not go unnoticed that Carrie and Johnson had arrived within a minute of each other at a Spectator magazine party. One who was present says: ‘I remember thinking it was intriguing. I thought to myself, ‘Why is she here?’ ‘
Perhaps it was a sense of certainty that others would eventually cotton on to the relationship that emboldened Carrie to focus her interest on her boyfriend’s political career.
A source who was close to Johnson at the time recalls: ‘That summer, she tried to muscle in. She bad-mouthed some of his staff and tried to persuade him that he needed to hire new people on his team.’
It was a foretaste of things to come.
In September 2018, The Sun broke the news of Johnson’s marital problems – quoting his daughter Lara, and saying she was ‘understood to have been overheard exploding with rage at her philandering dad’. The paper added: ‘She is said to have told pals at a party he ‘is a selfish bastard.’ ‘
Other media coverage in the following days named Carrie as the new woman in his life and revealed that Marina was understood to have found a string of text messages between the pair.
Although Carrie had become involved with Johnson willingly, none of this can have been easy for her. Some people point out that she perhaps failed to comprehend fully how blinding the glare of publicity would be once the truth of the affair was exposed. Indeed, not every portrait that appeared in the Press was entirely flattering.
The Times quoted an unnamed source as saying: ‘She was one of these girls who would be at all the parties. I can’t remember her doing any work that was really good, but she was always at every party going.’
However, Conservative MP Laura Trott told the BBC that briefings against Carrie were, in her opinion, ‘distasteful’. She said: ‘I used to work with Carrie. She’s an incredibly talented and able person and I think there should be some consideration given about whether some of these things would be said about a man.’
By December, Johnson, who had no permanent London base following his separation from Marina, had begun staying at Carrie’s flat in Camberwell, South London.
After Christmas, the couple flew to Greece together for a few days. When he returned to Westminster, fellow MPs and journalists noticed that Johnson had a sharper look about him. He had lost some weight and had his hair cut.
With then Prime Minister Theresa May’s political fortunes flagging, these were taken as outward signs that he had decided to make a move for the party leadership. It was equally clear to his political allies that Carrie intended to be actively involved in the process which he hoped would ultimately take him to 10 Downing Street.
As the screw tightened on Mrs May, her potential successors, Johnson among them, began mustering their troops.
In early April 2019, Johnson asked the former Tory Minister James (now Lord) Wharton to run his bid for the party leadership as his chief of staff.
Wharton told Johnson he was happy to take the job – only to be informed by a sheepish Johnson that the offer had been withdrawn.
‘Boris told him that Carrie didn’t trust him, and she wanted someone different in that post,’ says a source who worked on the campaign.
Wharton was astounded, having apparently barely met Carrie by this point. Meanwhile, it is also claimed that Carrie made use of Johnson’s telephone to try to direct and control events.
A campaign insider of the time remembers: ‘We’d spot the different ways things were written, because the style would change. We’d learn to spot when it was her writing the message.
‘So a text message would appear saying, for example, that there was a particular MP whose support we didn’t need or want. We realised Boris couldn’t have written the message because, the next day, Boris would contradict this.’
‘It was a nightmare,’ reports a separate source of Carrie’s involvement. ‘She had no ideas. She wasn’t prepared to roll her sleeves up and work hard, and yet she interfered all the time. This caused many problems and wasted a lot of very valuable time.’
A second source adds: ‘The problem was she would want to control everything, but she wouldn’t work with anyone. There would be a team meeting, something would be decided and Boris would agree it.
‘He would go home and tell Carrie everything that’d been decided, and then the phone would ring and it would be him saying, ‘We’ve got to change this, we’ve got to do that, we’re not going to do it like this any more.’ ‘
It has even been alleged that, on occasion, Carrie could be heard whispering prompts to Johnson while these phone calls were in progress.
‘It was a very difficult environment to work in,’ adds the second source. ‘You’d think you’d got things agreed and they’d be second-guessed all the time when they were together alone in an environment to which none of us had access.’
What is more, Carrie also began to insist on a prominent role in the campaign for a friend of hers, Ben Mallett – even, one source claims, to be the campaign chief of staff.
Another source adds: ‘One day, Ben Mallett walked in and announced he was now the campaign’s chief of staff. We told him politely that this was rubbish.
‘Boris said it was fine because he was too cowardly to confront Carrie about it. When some people threatened to quit if Ben Mallett really did become the chief of staff, Boris said, ‘Can’t you just call him the chief of staff?’
‘He was told in no uncertain terms that this would not happen.’
Attempts were also made by some on the team to sideline Carrie. These were not without comedy value.
‘It got to the point where members of the team booked taxis for her if there was a meeting that she was supposed to attend,’ recalls another source.
‘The driver would be instructed to take the longest route possible to wherever the meeting was being held so that she would miss it. It sometimes worked.’
But others believe such allegations and accusations to be unfair, among them Carrie’s ex-boss John Whittingdale. ‘The influence [Carrie is] claimed to have [is inaccurate],’ he says.
‘Yes, I’m sure Boris and Carrie discuss things in a way that previous spouses would not, because they were much less political. Samantha Cameron had little interest in politics. Philip May didn’t have a great knowledge of politics.
‘This is the first time the PM’s wife has been a committed political activist and had knowledge and experience of working in politics, so of course it’s going to be talked about. But she’s very good. She advised me for 15 months, so I know she’s good.’
Tory MP Tracey Crouch told one newspaper she disliked the way that Carrie had been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth figure. ‘I think it’s a bit sexist,’ said Crouch. ‘I also think it’s really rude to Boris.’
Johnson launched his leadership campaign on June 12, 2019. He and Carrie had never been seen in public at an official event before then, despite the news of their relationship having broken nine months earlier.
‘On the day of his launch, we arranged he would arrive by car,’ says a campaign team member. ‘What does Carrie do? She arrives separately, gets out of her vehicle and walks quite a long way to the venue with a friend by her side, so all the press became about her.
‘She didn’t tell the organisers she was coming, or if she did tell them, it was at the last minute. She could have gone in by a side door or something, but it had to be her big entrance. It was constant irritations like this that disrupted rather than derailed – but seriously diverted – attention from Boris, taking up a lot of people’s time in a high-pressure situation.’
Another source remembers a diary clash a few days later when Johnson was due to attend a breakfast event for Tory donors. It had been arranged by Ben Elliot, the nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, who had a reputation as a first-rate fixer with an impeccable contacts book.
Yet according to this source, Carrie insisted that Johnson should appear instead at a different event, at the lobbying firm Brunswick. ‘She organised it without telling anyone,’ says the source.
‘In the end, he did both breakfasts because he couldn’t say no to her. He shouldn’t have done this. It wasn’t discussed as part of the process of the campaign. This was the sort of thing that made everyone’s life more difficult than it needed to be.’
It has also been claimed that Carrie’s apparent personal dislike of some members of the campaign team got the better of her.
These included Ellie Lyons, a well-regarded Cambridge graduate who had worked as a researcher before becoming a special adviser to Gavin Williamson when he was Chief Whip and then Defence Secretary. Lyons did not know Carrie, but what happened next shocked some on the team.
‘Boris started saying, ‘Let’s get rid of Ellie,’ ‘ recalls one source.
‘He said, ‘Ellie is bad news.’ He had to be told that, in fact, Ellie had made a brilliant contribution to the campaign and he was lucky to have her. He was just being used by Carrie to do her dirty work.’
A job was found for Ellie at No 10 but she was dismissed soon after Johnson became PM.
Another source adds: ‘We learned pretty quickly there was a culture of fear around touching anything that Carrie didn’t like. There was a nervousness.
‘I think the people who are close to her and align with her get great benefits. Those who idolise her might get a fantastic job out of it.
‘If she doesn’t like you, there can be big consequences.’
A third source says: ‘She doesn’t like people who are more intelligent or attractive than her around her. Ellie’s problem was that she is both attractive and intelligent.’
There was a previous episode when Carrie worked at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
A colleague was another young woman, Mimi Macejkova, but she left her post within a few months of John Whittingdale becoming Secretary of State. He said Macejkova ‘didn’t gel with the others’ in his team. She was replaced by a friend of Carrie.
Later, Carrie’s closest friends settled into jobs as top aides to Johnson. One was Henry Newman, who was once described by her as one of her ‘favourite people’. Another was Josh Grimstone, who now works for Michael Gove.
A third was Allegra Stratton, appointed Johnson’s No 10 press spokesman after it was reported that he’d said: ‘Carrie will kill me if Allegra doesn’t get the job.’
For some who knew and worked with Carrie, she was an energetic and effective colleague.
‘She was invaluable as a media spad [special adviser],’ says Whittingdale. ‘She was one of the best in her field. She was also easy-going and fun. She was having to work very long hours. We became good friends. We’d go to the pub after a hard day.’
Another former colleague is at pains to project a positive memory of her. ‘We’d go for drinks after work because we were a group of people in their twenties with time on their hands after working long days. It was quite social.
‘She was always very good company and good fun, which matters in politics. I’ve always liked her.’ Another former press office colleague adds: ‘She was very bright, pretty and a lot of fun to work with. I don’t think she particularly enjoyed the duller side of the job, like getting press releases out, but she was by far the best person to get you good gossip on what was going on and liked to spend time with journalists.’
Whatever the tensions behind his campaign, Johnson became Prime Minister and won a landslide General Election five months later.
Looking back, one figure who has given careful thought to Carrie’s behaviour during this intense period reflects ruefully on their impression of the role she played.
‘She could be utterly charming, but she was always working behind the scenes,’ says this person.
‘I would say Boris is trapped in an emotionally disruptive relationship. I think he’s definitely scared of her and I think she dominates him. There were moments where he knew he was insisting on things that were not good for his campaign.
‘In private moments he would say words to the effect of, ‘Don’t do anything that’s going to make her torture me when I get home. You’ve just got to help me. My life at home’s miserable. You’ve got to find a way to make this bearable for me.’ He’d speak with exasperation in his eyes.’
One person who knows Johnson well, having worked with him when he was the Mayor of London, explains that the extent of the role in his domestic life played by his former wife Marina is perhaps under-acknowledged.
‘Marina was a very important influence on Boris,’ says the former colleague. ‘She was always punctual, she’d remember people’s birthdays and there was a basic human decency to her.
‘She cared. She instilled order. And she is very intelligent.
‘When the marriage ended, he lost his domestic support, the steadying influence, and he traded that in for a demanding girlfriend and strong disapproval from his children.
‘Do not underestimate how destabilising all of that can be.
‘Boris has always needed someone to make sure he has money in his pocket and a clean suit and shirt. There is a big management role in keeping him on a straight line. He went from having a base run by someone who knows him well – Marina – to an arrangement where home wasn’t properly organised and the person in that home, Carrie, is demanding rather than supplying.
‘I think it’s the biggest explanation of the dysfunctionality inside No 10. Marina was his wife, but she was also, in some respects, a mother figure to him.’
According to a newspaper report, another ally of Johnson observed: ‘Carrie f****d with his mind. She has him completely mesmerised.’
Someone else who knows Johnson, both politically and personally, has given much thought to the development of his character over the past four or five years. This person is in no doubt about what has happened.
‘Boris changed after he met Carrie,’ they say. ‘He always was a bit of a lonely figure because he has few friends, but now it’s worse than ever. He’s fallen out with his children, he’s lost Marina and, since he became Prime Minister, so many of the problems he’s had to deal with have been because of Carrie.
‘Deep down, I think he knows this. Sometimes I’ve seen him make excuses to avoid going upstairs to his flat in Downing Street. The whole thing is like a Greek tragedy.
‘He could have been a great Prime Minister but his lack of discipline, which led him to get involved with Carrie, has cost him. His potential to transform the country has been squandered and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s because of her. It’s like a toxic relationship. He’s isolated. It’s very sad. Politically, there is no agenda – he’s just drifting.’
Another source who knows both Johnson and Carrie well, having worked with them during his own political career, says that the reality of their marriage may be more difficult than some people realise.
‘I don’t think Carrie has many friends,’ says this person. ‘Nor does Boris. He has fewer, in some ways. She’s had a lot to put up with. I don’t think Boris is close to his family at the moment, so they both have few really close, loyal, personal friends. Maybe that was something they found in common.’
John Whittingdale says: ‘Carrie gets a tough time. It upsets her and I feel sorry for her. It’s a pretty lonely existence. I think they’ve struggled. She doesn’t see as much of Boris as she’d like because he’s trying to run the country.’
If it is true that their relationship can be described as a meeting of two people who may be more emotionally vulnerable than the majority of the British electorate appreciates, only the hardest of hearts would fail to recognise the sadness of this fact.
Yet the troubling question that, perhaps, too few people in Westminster and in Fleet Street have dared to ask publicly is what effect their perceived weaknesses have had on the way Britain has been governed since 2019.
One of Johnson’s closest allies in the Cabinet has said privately to sources quoted in this book that they believe Carrie is ‘the number one problem’ in Johnson’s administration.
Given that Carrie is unelected and unaccountable, many voters will wonder whether it would be better for the country if the Cabinet Minister in question had the courage to tell the Prime Minister this to his face.
How she ‘demanded a taxpayer-funded £538 gold-coloured iPad’
Carrie’s six months working as maternity cover as Sajid Javid’s adviser in the Department for Communities and Local Government is little remembered.
However, one source says she ‘spent the whole time trying to get the department to buy her a gold-coloured iPad’.
This purchase, at public expense, was ‘eventually approved by email from the Secretary of State’s private office,’ according to the source, even though Apple products are understood to have been incompatible with the department’s computer network.
A Freedom of Information request about the purchase was not answered for three months, even though such requests should normally be dealt with in 20 working days. The delay was attributed to ‘public interest’ reasons.
The response confirmed that ‘one iPad with case was purchased for a Special Adviser at a price of £538’.
The recipient was not named. Our mock-up, above, shows how Carrie may have used a gold-coloured iPad.
Further inquiries failed on the grounds that this is ‘personal, about another individual’ and releasing details would breach UK data protection legislation.
‘She sent photo of herself to lad mag’s High St Honeys’
While at university, Carrie Symonds submitted a photo of herself to FHM, the monthly magazine for young men. It was running a competition called High Street Honeys – described as a ‘quest to unearth the sexiest girl next door’.
In the year that Carrie entered, almost 14,000 young women from across Britain sent photos of themselves in a variety of provocative poses wearing skimpy underwear or a bikini.
Their pictures were posted online and members of the public were invited to vote for their favourite, who would win £10,000 and a contract to become a TV presenter.
Oliver Haiste, who dated Carrie between 2007 and 2012, said: ‘It was her idea to put herself forward. She’s always been an attention-seeker.’
Carrie was not named Britain’s High Street Honey.
Many years later it was reported that she had used a European data protection law known as the ‘right to be forgotten’ to ask internet search engines to de-list certain results for queries relating to her name, suggesting she has given some thought to her past digital activities.
Describing the photo, Haiste says: ‘She wore something unacceptable. It certainly wasn’t a cardigan and pearls. They were relatively explicit e.g. bikini and also topless ones.’
Ex-love: He cried more than any man I’ve known
One of Boris Johnson’s former lovers, Petronella Wyatt, says that when she first met him, he was ‘shy’ and ‘seemed almost frightened of women’.
She explains: ‘He was jealous of other men who were successful, intelligent, good writers or attractive to women. He used to get very worked up.’
After they split, she moved to America and dated another man. ‘Boris began ringing me all the time and trying to ruin the relationship,’ she says.
‘I got engaged and he rang up and told my fiance that I was his girlfriend. He wrecked that relationship.’
Miss Wyatt, pictured above with Boris in 2006, also recounts a row they had over his time-keeping. ‘He cried when I scolded him. He cried more than any man I’ve known. Boris is like the unhappy clown. For him, it’s all about winning, but it’s not about the prize.’
According to Miss Wyatt, his and Carrie’s personalities are completely different.
‘Carrie parties at [clubs like] Loulou’s and 5 Hertford Street, but he hates that. He is not a social animal,’ she says.
‘He was always worried about money. He was always talking about it.
‘And he showed a surprising lack of sophistication.
‘He once rejected a Pret A Manger sandwich as being too healthy. He prefers to eat sausages, cheap oven chips and sticky puddings.
‘His idea of a gourmet supper is to eat at Pizza Express.’
To pre-order a copy of First Lady go to biteback publishing.com.