Saturday, May 21, 2022
HomeKathy GyngellAshcroft's ‘First Lady’ is a public service, not misogyny

Ashcroft’s ‘First Lady’ is a public service, not misogyny

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IN CASE anyone working on the Telegraph or Private Eye hasn’t yet noticed, Britain’s energy security is under threat. Not just because of Mr Putin but because of our own Prime Minister’s crackpot Net Zero energy policy. Well before the Ukrainian conflagration, realisation was finally dawning in the mainstream press that the policy was unsustainable, and that rocketing energy and fuel prices were driving inflation and would lead irrevocably to hardship. If that was not a sufficient reality check, the emerging truth of Europe and America’s dependence on imported gas, oil and coal from Russia surely is. Telegraph staff really have no excuse. Their paper’s coverage has been admirable on this matter. Being reliant on potentially hostile countries for energy is not clever. To be in that situation because of a ‘green’ orthodoxy that demanded uncosted, unreliable, inefficient and environmentally questionable renewables at the expense of anything else is either stupid or crazy.

Those unable to understand Boris Johnson’s ideological conversion to this madness were surely fascinated to read the serialisation of Michael Ashcroft’s explosive biography of the latest Mrs Johnson, better known to the British public as Carrie, a few weeks ago. 

It was riveting to find out more about the woman who’s been one of the principal players behind Boris Johnson’s rabid insistence that by 2050 the UK must reach net zero carbon emissions. Now with the publication of First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson coinciding with the war, the implications of which are immense, you would think there would be even greater interest in her influence over the PM.

As far as I can see just two reviews of Ashcroft’s book have been published so far, and they are depressing to read, at best revealing the prejudices of the reviewers, at worst a lack of curiosity about what must be a matter of public interest. One of them, error-packed, was in Private Eye. The other, in the Daily Telegraph, was by the journalist and commentator, Judith Woods. She awarded Ashcroft’s offering one star – mainly, I deduce, because in the Introduction the writer refers to Mrs Johnson as having been a ‘young lady’ when she was 31 years old. Yes, seriously, Woods believes those two words side by side are grossly offensive. She also bizarrely seems to think that nothing in Ashcroft’s book matters because of what’s going on in Ukraine, when it precisely matters. We are vulnerable because of our energy policy that quite possibly would not be our energy policy but for the influence of the PM’s wife! I might expect the Guardian to get its knickers in a twist about scrutinising Mrs Johnson because, under its ‘woke’ agenda, no woman can be criticised without it being ‘misogyny’. It is disappointing from the once-mighty Daily Telegraph.

In a democracy, we expect to know as much as possible about a country’s leader, his character and his background, and that surely includes knowing about their spouse, especially one who is overtly political. Unelected and unaccountable and influential. It is inconceivable that Boris Johnson doesn’t discuss with his wife matters which affect all of us. That may be perfectly understandable, but this makes learning more about Carrie Johnson’s character vital. And the fact is that this well-researched and insightful book certainly teaches us quite a lot about her. That it’s a good read should not detract from it.

Carrie’s childhood was complicated and, seemingly, rather sad. She was the product of an affair between a co-founder of the Independent, Matthew Symonds, and Josephine McAfee. Symonds was a married father at the time and the book suggests he had a distant relationship with Carrie, despite living nearby. He did pay for her to attend two top London schools, but she was brought up as an only child by a single mother. Not easy. 

After Warwick University she dabbled in PR and then entered politics after meeting Zac Goldsmith’s cousin at a party. This encounter led to her working for Goldsmith (who crops up again and again in this book) and subsequently securing a job at Conservative Party headquarters (CCHQ). From there, she made her way up the ranks to become a special adviser to Culture Secretary John Whittingdale and then to Sajid Javid, when he was Housing Secretary. At 29, she was appointed communications director at CCHQ. All this is a very impressive, if surprising, rise for one so relatively inexperienced – she had not worked on a mainstream newspaper, for example, or even at a major think tank. But it is from this point that the story takes a turn.

Although many of those who are quoted in Ashcroft’s book spoke off the record, it is hard to ignore what they say. That their information is so specific also makes it plausible. Carrie was apparently seldom in the CCHQ office and, judging by the number of times she was on holiday abroad, it’s no surprise that her boss, Sir Mick Davis, was said to be angry about this. She also allegedly booked thousands of pounds worth of taxis in the names of younger CCHQ staff. These taxis were paid for by the Tory Party and used late at night and at weekends. When this came to light, there was a reckoning. One source is quoted in the book as saying ‘She’s lucky she didn’t end up in more serious trouble . . . It was misuse of CCHQ funds. She used the names of those just starting out on their careers. That was unforgivable.’ She lasted barely a year as communications director. Others must judge for themselves what all this says about Carrie Johnson’s character. 

Her affair with Boris Johnson began in 2018, when he was Foreign Secretary and married to his second wife, Marina. Ashcroft quotes a source who says an MP once walked into Johnson’s Commons office and found them in a ‘compromising situation’. Relevant or not? In that Johnson was, apparently, pushing at that time for Carrie to become his highly paid chief-of-staff, a suggestion to which his staff strongly objected because they felt she would be out of her depth, and he was married to someone else, then yes. Can anyone honestly say it is not in the public interest to know that this is how Johnson operates?

Chapter 8 contains extraordinary if not disturbing details of Carrie’s alleged meddling in Johnson’s 2019 Tory leadership campaign. She is described by those who worked on the ‘nightmare’ campaign as having ‘interfered all the time’. They accepted that, having worked in politics herself, she might want to make a contribution to the campaign. But they found she had ‘no ideas’ and wasn’t prepared to ‘roll her sleeves up and work hard’. She is even said to have tried to remove two highly regarded members of the campaign team, Ellie Lyons and Richard Holden. Again, the carefully worded accounts in this chapter contain far too much specific detail to be dismissed. Why would Ashcroft, a dedicated Conservative with a big C, make this stuff up?  

Johnson and Carrie having got into Downing Street, we are treated to more analysis of Wallpapergate and Partygate, two scandals which have caused Johnson immense trouble and with which Carrie has strong links. Ashcroft does not impose his own views on the reader. His reporting is objective. In the case of Wallpapergate, he points out (rather amusingly) that Johnson is not a man who has ever been known to have an interest in interior design. His wife is the opposite. He also reminds us that a previous No 10 occupant, Norma Major, once reminisced about her time in Downing Street after an IRA terrorist attack thus: ‘We lived with the holes in the ceilings and the torn curtains . . . for 18 months.’ That Blitz spirit seems to be sorely lacking in Mrs Johnson, whose interest in Lulu Lytle’s designs have ultimately cost Boris Johnson £112,000.

Then we come to more of Carrie’s ideological interests, such as her insistence on wading into the LGBT debate; the controversy surrounding her friend, Allegra Stratton, being given a £125,000 job in Downing Street; the sheer trivia of Johnson locking horns with the Times over an article it published about Dilyn the dog which upset Carrie; her seismic fallouts with two of Johnson’s chief advisers, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain; to what extent Johnson and Carrie were involved in getting animals out of Afghanistan last summer; and the Home Office’s hiring of Carrie’s friend Nimco Ali on a contract costing the public thousands of pounds a year (this job was not advertised). These are just some of the non-political things that have clogged up Boris Johnson’s – and the media’s – time since July 2019. Bound up and detailed in one volume, they make for depressing reading about the behaviour and preoccupations of the undignified and embarrassing couple in No 10 who at times have reduced politics to EastEnders.

Again one is forced to ask: why would Ashcroft – a Tory Party donor – write about these things unless he had checked them out properly and become concerned? Would he really stir the pot just for fun? Or would he publish this book because he believes it is important that people know more about Mrs Johnson? He insists in the Afterword that his aim is not to destabilise Boris Johnson (more’s the pity, perhaps!) My guess is that his principal motivation is to enlighten the public, and send a wake-up call to the Prime Minister to tell him this behaviour is not on and that we expect better of him.

The ridiculous, manufactured claims about misogyny that have occasionally dogged the book so far detract from its real import, and ‘feminists’ do women no service by making excuses for the first lady. Once upon a time, manipulating men from behind the scenes was the only way women could influence public affairs. That is very far from the case today. Every opportunity and avenue is open to them, and more. What I read about Carrie Johnson I find sad and worrying as well as alarming. She does not come across as any more stable than her husband.

By writing First Lady, Michael Ashcroft has done us a favour. It makes no odds that he is a man. Are we going to say a woman could not write a book about Carrie’s husband? We now know far more about the character of the ‘young lady’ (she is still only 33, so these words are not misplaced) to whom Boris Johnson is married and who is the prime ministerial consort. This matters. This book tells us a lot about the way Britain under Boris Johnson is being run. And I am afraid, however distasteful it may be, we need to know it. Anybody who seriously suggests otherwise needs to have their head read. 

The book is available here. 

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngellhttps://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/the-editors/
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @KathyConWom on Twitter.

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