Carrie On comedy

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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.

Come back, Mrs. May – all is forgiven!

STUART MILLSON says the much-maligned Theresa had Brexit about right

The ousting of Boris Johnson’s close political adviser, Dominic Cummings – architect of the Vote Leave victory in 2016, and (at the time of writing) the continued impasse over a final Brexit deal, have brought our relations with the EU into sharp focus once again.

Since the referendum, a moment in our history which confirmed an end to one of the most significant parts of the post-war consensus – that Britain should root itself within a European sphere of influence – the defeated pro-Remain side in Britain has tried, time and again, to reverse, or dilute, the result. Their efforts reached a zenith during the days of Theresa May’s premiership: her Government’s small majority in the House of Commons (reinforced by Unionist votes, which in the end dematerialised) making it impossible to bring EU exit legislation successfully through its many stages.

Unable to enact the will of the people as expressed in the Vote Leave result, Mrs May’s position became untenable – the only way forward for Brexit being a bonfire of the vanities: a General Election which would sweep away the entrenched Remainish majority in the Commons – removing all those MPs who famously put their own eloquence and ideology before Brexit. And it should not be forgotten that one of those MPs, in those uneasy days, was none other than Boris Johnson: a figure who could be counted upon to vote against his Prime Minister and party. As one backbencher smirkingly remarked, it was indeed strange to see the Brexit purists marching through the same Division lobbies as the SNP and the second-referendum brigade, leaving Mrs. May with just the tatters of her policy.

Yet the former Prime Minister – whose instinct was always to strike a compromise – did set out with the highest hopes for Brexit – and a final settlement which whilst not, perhaps, embodying everything for which we Brexiteers had hoped, nonetheless set our country on a course of independence – but sustaining immediate economic contacts with the bloc to which we formerly belonged as a political member. Put very simply, Mrs. May’s idea was that United Kingdom should leave the political institutions of the European Union (institutions which no longer serve any European citizen) but remain within, or alongside, all the practical economic arrangements, which allow life to continue as normal: lorries and coaches driving on and off ferries or Eurotunnel services; goods and services freely flowing – and the English middle class still able to visit and settle in Normandy at the drop of a three-cornered hat. But more than that, Mrs. May – the pragmatist, the careful Whitehall moderator – saw her deal in more than just ‘foreign policy’ terms. For this Prime Minister, an heir to Chamberlainite ideals of a united, social-democratic, communitarian Tory Britain, her Brexit deal was a visionary attempt to honour the entire result of the referendum, in a fusion of moderate-Leave and moderate-Remain ideals. The result: social cohesion, acceptance, domestic harmony.

She reasoned as follows: the majority of Remain voters, though obviously believing that we should stay within the Euro-club, were by no means part of the much-mocked ‘Remainiac’ rump, which seemed – each day, to parade itself across the news bulletins, with Euro-banner demonstrations outside Parliament and yet more legal and parliamentary challenges to the Government’s legislation. (Readers will recall international businesswoman, Gina Miller and her offshore backers’ resolve to stop ministerial invocation of Article 50 – the EU treaty’s leaving mechanism – in the Supreme Court.)

Furthermore, went the thinking, that most ‘Remain’ supporters also tended to take the view that, (a) Britain had been a member of the European project for over 40 years, and (b) that much of our trade is conducted with our continental partners, so why ‘rock the boat’ – why unravel complicated arrangements beneficial to industries and workers, just for the sake of a political point? Sharing also, perhaps, the tabloids’ and Telegraph suspicion, or dislike of the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ (rather than the European Community itself), the middle-of-the-road Remainers, nevertheless constituted a large segment of the British electorate – an electoral element Mrs May did not wish to alienate. If the May  Government could appeal to this part of middle-England, counting on their sense of fair play to respect the majority Brexit vote, then the extreme and influential pro-EU faction could be isolated – portrayed as anti-democrats whose instincts were simply unreasonable, even hostile to the nation-state, yet adulatory of foreign banners and bureaucrats.

With a consensus achieved, the country could then begin to repair the divisions which flared up and began to cast a gloomy atmosphere over Britain in the months following the referendum: Brexit would be generous and consensual – and pro-Europeans would still have some of the cultural links they craved. But the ideal – first propounded by Mrs May in her famous Chatham House speech, setting out the aim of a sovereign Britain linked to many international bodies – was not to be. With a Corbynite Labour Party (excited about another election) scenting fear – and blood – from its Tory opponents; and with a ‘Brexit party’ at work on the Tory backbenches, tripping up the Government at every opportunity, the consensus Prime Minister could no longer continue her mission.

As we survey the Brexit landscape at the end of our transition year to full independence, we might ponder the notion that Mrs. May did, in fact, get it right: with a path that would have steered us away from over-dependence upon either the United States or Europe – a sensible insurance policy, given the change of administration now underway in Washington and a less sympathetic view of Brexit from the new President-Elect. And with Britain now demoralised through Covid,  fragmenting at the edges, too, as devolved UK assemblies chart their own path through the crisis, Mrs. May’s hope for a re-uniting of people of goodwill – non-ideological Brexiteers and realistic Remainers – could have given us the cohesion required to take us on the next step of our national journey.