Boris Johnson, according to a longtime colleague, likes to lead “a team of rivals”, with advisers scrabbling for his attention, decisions emerging and then vanishing into the ether: “There will always be chaos around him.”
But in recent months, one faction in Johnson’s Downing Street is clearly in the ascendancy and has close access to the prime ministerial ear: a group that coalesces around Carrie Symonds, his fiancée.
“Carrie’s camp is the dominant one now,” said one government insider. Symonds, a former Conservative head of communications, played a significant role in tearing down Johnson’s old Number 10 and in advising the prime minister on how to put together a new one.
Symonds, who works for a conservation charity, has been the target of negative briefings in recent weeks, ranging from her role in the costly refurbishment of the No 10 flat to the alleged misdemeanours of her beloved rescue dog Dilyn.
Her position is the subject of special scrutiny because of the prime minister’s longstanding tendency, according to several government insiders, of making up his mind on policy at the last minute.
“The best way to get through to Boris is to make sure you are the last person who speaks to him,” said one person close to the prime minister. “The person in the room is king.” In many instances that is Symonds, the 33-year-old mother of the prime minister’s son Wilfred.
But her friends claim she is the victim of a briefing war by allies of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser, who was ousted from No 10 as part of a coup against the “Vote Leave” faction last November. “Most of it is sexist rubbish,” said one friend. “Of course she has a view on things. But she doesn’t attend meetings or email things.”
Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank, said: “Carrie would not be the first spouse reported to be providing advice. Denis Thatcher famously did and Theresa May was very honest about the role Philip May performed,” she added.
Downing Street insiders say the departure of Cummings heralded a dialling down of the chaos in No 10: the Financial Times spoke to a number of people close to the centre of power on terms of anonymity about the new set-up.
The recent Budget, the vaccine rollout and the unveiling of a “road map” for ending the Covid-19 lockdown are cited as examples of a well-functioning government machine. Johnson’s government enjoys a comfortable poll lead.
But the “team of rivals” around Johnson is still unstable. In recent weeks Oliver Lewis, a Cummings ally, quit as head of the unit charged with trying to keep Scotland in the union — after only two weeks in the job — fearing he was losing the PM’s ear.
Lord David Frost, former Brexit negotiator, threatened to quit unless he was given a cabinet seat and more responsibility to oversee relations with the EU. He is viewed warily by the new arrivals in No 10. “He threw his toys out of the pram,” said one.
The old “tribes” that once sustained Johnson are dispersing. His old “City Hall” gang from his days as London mayor is much diminished. The PM’s 71-year-old former chief of staff Eddie Lister left No 10 in January; Munira Mirza, head of the No 10 policy unit, is the most prominent survivor.
The Vote Leave squad, led by Cummings but also featuring Lewis and Lee Cain, former director of communications, has also dispersed. Cain and Cummings lost their battle to control access to Johnson; Frost is the most high-profile survivor of the inner team that delivered Brexit.
In their place has come a group of relatively young officials. They tend to be modernisers and have many years of Whitehall experience as ministerial advisers. They favour stable government over chaos and scorn the Cummings-era mood of permanent revolution.
Most of them are friends of Symonds. While Johnson is a political loner, his fiancée, a former ministerial adviser, appears to know everyone. They include Simone Finn, who organised Symonds’ 30th birthday party, recruited as deputy to chief of staff Dan Rosenfield.
Henry Newman, once noted by Symonds to be among her “favourite people”, has a powerful new role in No as a senior adviser. Both Newman and Finn previously worked for Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
Symonds lives above a prime ministerial office that hosts a number of her other friends: Henry Cook, who helped to draw up the Covid-19 road map, and Meg Powell-Chandler, who controls the forward-planning “grid”. Along with Newman they form what Johnson calls his “three musketeers”.
Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s press secretary, who is due to start hosting televised daily press conferences, worked with Symonds last year to persuade Johnson to draw a line under the anarchic Cummings era.
One ministerial adviser said these appointments were made on merit and personal ties to Symonds were coincidental. “Henry Newman is a very smart guy and the same is true of Simone. She and the PM go back a long way to the days when she was fundraising for him in the mayoral campaign,” the adviser said.
For those on the outside, that can make life harder. Rosenfield, a former Treasury official and banker, is said by some insiders to have struggled to limit the number of people with access to the PM when decisions have to be taken.
Rosenfield was recruited by Johnson in November to bring order to his operation. “He’s succeeded in that, things are much more structured now,” insisted one Downing Street insider. “Things are much steadier and calmer.”
But being Johnson’s chief of staff is “an almost impossible job”, according to those working closely with the prime minister. One said: “Boris sees himself as his own chief of staff and decides who he wants to see. He also sees no problem in taking several contradictory positions at once.”
Simon Case, the 42-year-old appointed cabinet secretary last September, is viewed by some in the civil service as “Dom’s appointment”. The former private secretary to Prince William has restored some calm to the top of the Whitehall machine, but works alongside advisers who loathe Cummings.
One senior official suggested that Rosenfield and Case have struggled to keep Johnson focused: “Sometimes decisions that appear to have been taken change overnight.” The finger of suspicion is sometimes pointed at Symonds, although critics often struggle to identify where exactly she might have intervened.
Number 10 officials say that Johnson’s enthusiasm for issues such as animal welfare and the environment are among the most visible examples of Symonds’ influence. “He sometimes talks about issues that ‘young people are interested in’,” said one insider. “That’s code for Carrie.”
Although some officials express concern about Symonds’ influence, others insist her role does not go beyond those of previous prime ministerial spouses. One said: “There’s never been any inappropriate requests, there would be very firm pushback if anything came from her.”
Haddon added there was likely to be some underlying sexism. “It was with Cherie Blair that the tensions first emerged about how prominent they should be in their own rights, how influential they are, how much support they get from the taxpayer — all while suffering a huge amount of media attention.”