First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson
Michael Ashcroft, Biteback, 2022, 304pp, £20
KEN BELL is unconvinced by an attempted character assassination
Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Caroline ‘Carrie’ Johnson takes the art of reputational destruction to a completely new level, gleefully combining the hatchet and stiletto.
By all accounts, Carrie was a bright young thing, and Ashcroft presents her as being of the type who go up to universities such as Bristol or Durham, as they ‘are among the most popular choices for pupils of her ability.’ Not Oxbridge in other words – but the universities that take those who have been rejected by Oxbridge. Thus the stiletto goes in, to be quickly followed by the hatchet, as one of her friends is quoted as saying: ‘Carrie’s very socially intelligent. She’s very good academically in terms of exam achievements. But she herself knew that by doing Theatre Studies at Warwick she wasn’t reading astrophysics at Cambridge.’
The idea of Carrie as being ‘socially intelligent’ helps to account for the rise of the ‘young lady’ after she graduated. Through her social set she met a relative of Zac Goldsmith, then used an introduction to him to start working her way up the ranks of the Tory nomenklatura. Through Goldsmith, she got a job with the party and from there inveigled a position as a special advisor, first to John Whittingdale when he was Culture Secretary, then Sajid Javid, when he ran Housing. By the age of 29 she had become the party’s Communications Director – not bad going for a woman who had never actually worked as a journalist.
The problem with all of this is that Carrie does not seem to have been much interested in either the policies of the party that she was representing, nor the minutiae of actual policy formation. She was often missing from the office a lot even when she was in London, and took several overseas holidays a year which left her completely out of touch for long periods.
Carrie’s broad social group seems to have protected her from much criticism, and her reported ruthlessness at dealing with people, especially other women, she did not like, tells us a lot. My favourite story out of many concerns the use of taxis, with each aide being given a code to use when they called a cab from a particular firm. According to Ashcroft, Carrie used the code that had been given to a girl she seems to have disliked, and used it on her days off to book cabs to ferry her around at the party’s expense.
As presented by Michael Ashcroft, Carrie is a flighty party girl who made a bee-line for important men and then attached herself to gain preferment. Although she briefly became the mistress of one Tory MP Ashcroft declines to name, she was not the lover of any of the individuals named in the book, which may be why they still speak highly of her. It may just have been that she knew how to tickle the middle-aged male fancy with a ‘girly’ persona. Boris Johnson was tickled enough with her to take her on as his latest mistress, with former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre speaking for many when he noted that she was ‘the 31-year-old minx who is the current Boris Johnson bedwarmer.’ However, Dacre was a poor prophet, going on to write: ‘As for the minx, mark my words: there will be tears before bedtime.’ Lord Ashcroft can afford an army of researchers for his biographies, but none have turned up even a whisper that the minx ever cried herself to sleep.
The biography starts to falter somewhat from the time that Carrie became first Boris’ mistress and then his wife. We are told via another anonymous source: ‘For Boris, Carrie was a fling. 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.’ The problem with this line, which Ashcroft seems to accept without question, is that Boris had no good reason to take Carrie on as a long-term proposition if he didn’t want to. By this time, a sizeable number of senior Tory administrators had realised how useless she was at serious administration. He could have presented her as a problem that had been dealt with and within days she would have been forgotten. He didn’t, which suggests that he may actually have been in love with her, hard though that may be to believe for his legion of detractors.
Sadly, the rest of the biography is a chronicle of tittle-tattle, with no attempt being made to explain why the events mentioned actually happened, assuming they ever did. The wallpaper that supposedly cost £850 a roll for the Downing Street flat is probably the easiest to explain, since few men are even aware of the colour of their wallpaper and leave home décor to their womenfolk. Likewise, Boris’ dismissal of people by saying that Carrie didn’t like them may even be true, but a plausible reason for such events is that Boris was performing the old trick of blaming ‘‘er indoors’ for an action that he intended to carry out anyway. Finally, to what extent can we blame Carrie for interfering in decisions to the extent, supposedly, of whispering advice into his ear when he was speaking to senior figures on the telephone? If it happened, then surely the fault lies with her husband for not hushing her?
Much of this should be treated with a great deal of scepticism, especially at a time of international crisis. One would think that this would be a perfect opportunity for a girl who thinks a lot of herself to stick her oar in, but Boris really seems to be running the show, with Carrie, presumably, supporting him in the background by running the home and caring for the children. Put another way, if she was the Lady Macbeth figure of Ashcroft’s imagination, people would be complaining about her and they are not.
So what we are left with is a biography that was excellent when it described a flirty girl’s rise in the Tory ranks, but which cannot present a coherent, plausible explanation for what has happened since she was promoted from mistress to wife. That said, there is enough gossip in the volume to keep the most demanding political anorak happy for many long evenings down the pub as the tales that Ashcroft tells are told and retold, at least as long as Boris remains in Downing Street. After that, I fear the work will date very quickly.
KEN BELL is a Mancunian who fetched up in Mexico, and who now lives in shabby retirement in Edinburgh. He writes as a hobby in his twilight years; a fuller biography can be found at his Amazon author page