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Decorating scandal engulfs Boris Johnson and puts fiancée in spotlight

Johnson has been accused of secretly using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement his public budget for redecorating his apartment — a charge that, although Johnson says he has repaid the money, has prompted an investigation by Britain’s Electoral Commission.

Written by Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

Of all the unsavory ethical questions swirling around Prime Minister Boris Johnson these days, the one that has stuck is how he paid for the costly makeover of his apartment in Downing Street. And it has put his 33-year-old fiancée, Carrie Symonds, under a particularly scorching spotlight.

Johnson, 56, has been accused in news reports of secretly using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement his public budget for redecorating the apartment — a charge that, although Johnson says he has repaid the money, has prompted an investigation by Britain’s Electoral Commission. But it is Symonds and her purportedly expensive taste in wallpaper and designer furniture that has become a running theme on social media and in British tabloids.

“#CarrieAntoinette” is trending as a Twitter hashtag, while the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, had himself photographed studying wallpaper at the British department store John Lewis — a labored stunt meant to make light of reports that Symonds derided the Downing Street décor left by Johnson’s no-nonsense predecessor, Theresa May, as a “John Lewis furniture nightmare.”

Never mind that Symonds has not actually been quoted saying anything about John Lewis. The reference, in a profile of her in Tatler magazine, is attributed to an unnamed person who once visited her in the apartment. Tatler reported that Symonds oversaw the renovation project, and her involvement means she, too, may have to turn over evidence to the Electoral Commission.

For Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications chief who now works for an animal rights group, it is the latest trial in a year overstuffed with dramatics: the near-fatal illness of Johnson after he contracted the coronavirus; the birth of their son, Wilfred; and the bitter purging of Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in which she is reported to have played a behind-the-scenes role.

It all has put Symonds at the heart of a familiar narrative, one replete with sexism and double standards: the grasping, manipulative politician’s partner. She joins a parade of women, from Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose murmurings to their men were the subject of fevered suspicion.

The facts that her relationship with Johnson coincided with the breakup of his 25-year marriage and that she became the first unmarried partner to move into Downing Street only add to Symonds’ tabloid portrayal as a libertine Lady Macbeth or an upwardly mobile Marie Antoinette — choose your cliché.

“The outsized fascination with Carrie Symonds’ role in the prime minister’s circle reflects outdated sexist tropes that regard women in positions of influence as inherently devious,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

Her defenders say that as an accomplished political player in her own right, Symonds has no less right to offer advice to the prime minister than any other unpaid adviser — and he would be wise to take it.

And yet, others say, there are legitimate questions to ask about Symonds’ influence, which goes beyond the news media’s obsessive focus on home improvements at Downing Street. Her ardent defense of animal rights was reported to have contributed to the government’s decision to halt a cull of badgers in Derbyshire, which contradicted the advice of scientists and veterinarians.

Friends of Symonds have been installed in key positions in Downing Street and, in the telling of Cummings, protected by her even after evidence of wrongdoing. On his blog, he claimed that Johnson wanted to shut down a leak investigation after it became clear that the culprit was Henry Newman, a close adviser to Symonds.

Cummings quoted Johnson as saying to him, “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker, then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie, as they’re best friends.”

Downing Street has denied that Johnson tried to shut down the investigation, but it did not comment about Symonds’ role.

Her defenders say she has a savvy political sense and could well have aspired to a seat in Parliament if she hadn’t begun a relationship with Johnson. To the extent that she is giving him advice, some say, it is helpful: Cutting loose Cummings and other hard-core Brexiteers softened the prime minister’s image and improved his popularity before the recent ethics issues pulled him back to his more familiar role as a political scalawag.

Symonds labors under a few handicaps, one of which is the lack of a job description for a prime minister’s partner. The role has no constitutional status, and unlike that of first lady in the United States, little administrative support. Successful spouses have usually had strong identities outside Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, was a businessman, as is May’s husband, Philip. David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, ran a fashion company, while Cherie Blair, who once had her own political ambitions, worked as a high-level barrister during her husband’s decade in office. Although Cherie Blair’s influence came under criticism early on, the scrutiny subsided as she built a flourishing legal career.

“She always knew she could go back to her job at the bar, which made it less demeaning to be the appendage,” said Fiona Millar, a journalist and onetime aide to Cherie Blair. Symonds, she said, “doesn’t seem to have that life outside politics, which the people who’ve been successful at it did have.”

The daughter of Matthew Symonds, a co-founder of The Independent newspaper, and a lawyer for the paper, Josephine McAfee, Carrie Symonds was raised by her mother. (Both parents were married to other people at the time.)

Her young adulthood was deeply affected by an incident in 2007 when she was targeted by a taxi driver who served her spiked drinks while driving her home. Carrie Symonds testified against the man, John Worboys, who was jailed as a serial sexual predator.

Well connected and social, Symonds became a public relations aide for the Conservative Party, eventually rising to chief communications officer, where she encountered Johnson. The couple had hoped to get married last summer, after his divorce from Marina Wheeler became final, but delayed the date because of coronavirus restrictions.

Life in Downing Street is less glamorous than it might appear, Millar said. While the job comes with a spacious Westminster apartment, a baronial weekend home, Chequers, and an annual decorating budget of 30,000 pounds ($41,600), the government does not pay for food or household staff. Outside of public occasions, the couple are expected to cook for themselves or get takeout.

Political commentators say they see Symonds’ fingerprints in Johnson’s embrace of green policies. They say she has played to his pragmatic instincts by nudging him toward a more conciliatory politics.

Some of the uneasiness about Symonds is as much about Johnson as her. With few fixed positions and a lack of ideological moorings, he leaves the impression that his decisions can be swayed by those with greatest access to him. During a year of lockdowns, that circle sometimes shrank to Symonds.

“The reason we’re fussing over this is that we think we have an inadequate figure as prime minister,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a London think tank. “If we thought we had a really good prime minister, would we really care who his spouse is, beyond hoping he has a happy personal life?”

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