The slimmer figure! The sleeker hair! The whale-hugging image! Boris Johnson is being transformed before our eyes, and many point to his much younger, more politically progressive new love as the reason. But who is Carrie Symonds? Sonia Purnell separates truth from gossip – and discovers that she might just be his secret weapon for securing the keys to Number 10.
To the casual observer, 31-year-old Carrie Symonds seems to have it all. Ranked the second most powerful public relations operator in Britain, she commands a handsome salary from an international eco-charity. A privately educated go-getter, she lives in a £1 million London apartment and has several Cabinet ministers on speed dial.
Carrie is also said to be madly in love with an equally enamoured 54-year-old wannabe prime minister, Boris Johnson, who cycles across London late at night to be with her. Despite the age gap, the pair are seen in some quarters as the dynamic duo of Tory politics just as Theresa May’s tenure in Downing Street runs out. Should Boris, who earlier this month confirmed that he is running for office, fulfil his lifelong ambition of becoming Conservative leader, Carrie could find herself settling in at Number 10 as one of the most glamorous political consorts in history.
Yet neither her success nor her well-placed friends and relations – her father Matthew Symonds was co-founder of The Independent newspaper and her mother Josephine Mcaffee a successful media lawyer – can compensate for the slings and arrows of her earlier life. Nor can they protect her from her detractors, who some believe engineered her sudden departure last August from her role as the Conservatives’ youthful director of communications. Carrie, however, appears unfazed by upsetting the powerful in the name of a cherished cause.
Perhaps one of the keys to understanding Carrie is to know that beneath her confident, smiling exterior lies a fear that sets her apart from many other successful young women. It stems from when, at the age of 19, she became one of the youngest victims of the notorious ‘black cab’ sex attacker John Worboys. The prospect of his release has haunted her since the fateful night she encountered him in July 2007 during her first year of studying theatre and history of art at Warwick University.
As Carrie lost consciousness in the back of Worboys’s taxi she may never know exactly what happened after seeing friends in Chelsea and accepting a lift to her family house a few miles away in East Sheen, Southwest London. Worboys initially seemed a well-meaning cabbie who offered her a cheap £5 ride home, although the last thing she remembers is being unwilling to accept the drink he kept pressing on her and that she believes was spiked.
By the time she finally got home she collapsed in front of her mother, laughing hysterically and being violently sick until she passed out. Later she contacted the police; it was, she has since said, the loss of control over her fate that disturbed her most. ‘It was terrifying when I found out how many women he had gone after,’ she said after the trial, in which she endured gruelling cross-examination by Worboys’s defence counsel. Worboys ‘is a danger to society. I feel so angry that he pleaded not guilty and made us go through the pain of giving evidence in court.’
Aged just 20, she gave evidence in the witness box when some survivors couldn’t bear the ordeal of facing down their attacker and having their reputations potentially trashed in a bid to discredit their testimony. It was as if even then she took it upon herself to represent others, perhaps understanding she had the physical and mental resources to do so when they might not.
Maybe it was the satisfaction, in March 2009, of seeing Worboys finally brought to justice (with convictions for 19 offences including one rape) that renewed her confidence and allowed her to go on to secure a first-class degree. But she subsequently feared that the testimony that helped to secure Worboys’s conviction has put her in danger. Her high profile as a rising political star means any terror of the consequences if he were ever to be at liberty again must remain real and constant. As a close friend says, ‘Carrie can cope with the Worboys thing but only by knowing for sure that he is behind bars.’
That precious security, though, appeared to have been threatened 16 months ago when the parole board elected to release Worboys after serving ten years in prison. Ministers said they were powerless to reverse the decision. Driven surely by her fears as well as anger at this blatant injustice – shared by many other of his victims – she helped to support a judicial review, backed by more than £60,000 raised through crowdfunding and the strategic placing of newspaper articles, to seek to change the rules on releasing the most dangerous prisoners.
‘It was a huge kick in the teeth to hear he was to be let out,’ recalls a friend. ‘But she drew strength from the fact she was in a position to do something and so, incredibly, she turned her fire on her own apartministers from within CCHQ [Conservative campaign headquarters].’
It took barely more than a week for the government – whose reputation she had specifically been hired to promote – to back down and agree to allow victims to challenge parole-board decisions without the need for expensive lawyers. But she paid a high price. ‘She had to face Worboys all over again,’ recalls another friend. ‘But without her courage, he would by now be out on the streets.’
Westminster sources suggest that ministers, understood to include Justice Secretary David Gauke, didn’t take kindly to her actions. She was, after all, in charge of projecting the Tory party and its leading figures to the electorate rather than holding them to account. Even so, Carrie didn’t stop there, most recently wading in against plans for rape victims to be obliged to hand over unfettered access to their phones or have their cases dropped by the police. Her efforts have been supported by MPs such as Labour’s Yvette Cooper as well as her former boyfriend Harry Cole (deputy political editor of The Mail on Sunday), who continues to be on friendly terms with her. It’s also likely that thanks to her efforts more women have come forward and Worboys now faces another four counts of sexual assault.
Carrie kept her post last spring thanks to well-placed Tory friends who rated her highly. ‘She transformed the party messaging, vastly improving the Twitter output,’ reports one insider. Previously she had proved her mettle as special adviser to John Whittingdale at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, followed by a stint with the now Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Many believe she was behind Javid’s interventions on such progressive issues as banning female genital mutilation (Carrie is close friends with anti-FGM campaigner Nimco Ali) and having an ethnic minority face on the new £50 notes.
Michael Gove was impressed by her pushing green issues up the Tory agenda. ‘Gove saw how she had made the environment a rare bright topic to talk about amid the Brexit disaster,’ says one youthful Tory insider. ‘He quickly rode on to the back of her work, with his talk of banning plastic straws, which got him a lot of favourable coverage.’ However, old-fashioned Tories cared for neither the green agenda nor her boldness in challenging a Cabinet minister over the parole board rules. But others saw her as a visionary who did ‘normal’ and tweeted about Love Island. Perhaps foremost among them was Boris, who joined Gove and ‘The Saj’ at her 30th birthday party in March last year.
Some guests were amused by Boris’s dancing to songs by her beloved Abba. His presence wasn’t entirely unexpected – he’d reportedly been seen lunching with Carrie at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden on Valentine’s Day (supposedly with his bodyguards keeping a watchful eye from another table). But he was now bombarding her with flirtatious messages. Rumours grew when the pair were photographed exchanging meaningful glances outside a Tory fundraising ball.
By early summer, there was word of anger in Downing Street that the party communications chief was consorting with a figure seen as vandalising the PM’s quest to push through her Brexit deal. Boris’s resignation as Foreign Secretary in July made him a direct threat to Mrs May’s premiership. And although she was a confirmed Brexiteer, Carrie’s generally relatively liberal world-view was also seen to be at odds with the PM’s more old-fashioned outlook.
Her socialising in exclusive nightclubs with flamboyant Brexiteers such as Zac Goldsmith – whom she has helped on more than one election campaign – had hardly endeared her to the vicar’s daughter in Number 10. Although able to make friends from backgrounds different to her own, Carrie had come from a fancy school – the £20,000-a-year Godolphin and Latymer in West London, alma mater of Nigella Lawson and Annunziata Rees-Mogg. ‘She comes over as approachable and a normal-ish person, who happens to be a formidable communicator with empathy for a lot of different people and causes,’ says a former colleague. ‘She embodies what some see as a millennial Conservative.’
Events began to move uncontrollably. By the beginning of August Carrie was out of Conservative HQ, with some of her defenders – such as MP Nadine Dorries – claiming she had been ousted. There were unconfirmed reports of rows about Carrie’s alleged conflict of interest between her new boyfriend and Mrs May.
Carrie’s friends insist that she had taken up her ‘dream job’ of campaigning for Oceana, an environmental charity backed by American philanthropists such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and film stars Pierce Brosnan and Morgan Freeman. ‘Politics pays badly,’ one ex-colleague offered, confirming that Carrie’s new role was far more remunerative. But she’d had her last ‘dream job’ – Tory communications director – for little more than a year and money had never seemed to have been an issue, judging by her lifestyle and designer wardrobe.
More drama ensued, with an announcement that Boris had separated some months previously from his wife Marina and that the couple were to seek a divorce, seemingly confirming that Carrie and Boris were an item.
Although Johnson family friends are at pains to point out that the decision to split for good had been Marina’s rather than her husband’s, publicly the story played differently, with Boris portrayed as being lured away from the marital home by his sexy new lover. Some of the newspapers Carrie had once so effectively courted on behalf of her party now rounded on her. True, she had posted uninhibited pictures of herself on social media, but excitement over such ‘fun-loving’ images completely drowned out recognition of her courage and achievements.
The frenzy reduced a professional woman who had directed the Conservative party’s media machine at the age of 29 to the status of an empty blonde bimbo with the unwelcome tag of ‘party girl’. Further ‘luscious’ pictures, including ones of her wearing skimpy bikinis on holiday, were trawled up from the internet, spiced up with references to her nickname of Apples. Boris’s rather more rumbustious younger life was left unexamined. Carrie jokingly referred to her predicament at the time: ‘Sea otters,’ she tweeted, ‘have the thickest fur of all animals.’ ‘Little Otter’ is reportedly Boris’s pet name for her.
Carrie’s treatment sparked an open letter condemning the coverage signed by then fellow Tories Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, as well as Labour’s Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, a reflection of the warmth she inspired.
Boris was still free, of course, to continue as before as an MP and columnist, but as old Westminster hands note, such political liaisons rarely end well for the female partner. ‘Carrie might well have gone on to become a great MP, and was a person to watch long before Boris came on the scene,’ one admirer noted. ‘But being with Boris will hinder rather than help her as it will be all about him – and she will be tainted.’ One concerned friend fretted, ‘It takes a brave person to be the third Mrs Boris Johnson, and it’s not necessarily a great job.’
Sources close to the Johnson family hardly give her comfort. They suggest that Boris is devastated by the anger of his wife and children (who struggle to forgive his disloyalty) and is ‘psychologically unfit’ to prove himself as a devoted long-term partner to Carrie, let alone a viable leadership contender or PM. His eldest daughter Lara – just six years Carrie’s junior – is said to be furious with her father. Although Carrie has been seen in public with Boris’s father Stanley on an anti-whaling protest – Stanley shares her pro-wildlife stance – other family members seem less willing to meet her. Boris asked if he could bring her to a recent family gathering, but in the end she didn’t accompany him. One source close to the couple, however, says that rumours of cracks in their relationship are wide of the mark: ‘I suspect that’s someone causing mischief – my hunch is that we’re closer to a new wedding than anything else,’ he says.
Carrie keeps her hand in politics by working hard on Boris’s leadership campaign, although this too has prompted rumours of a power struggle within his team and resentment from rivals who once relied on her. Even so, it’s likely to have been her influence that has seen him try to repair damage caused by his incendiary remarks – hence his Twitter video wishing Muslims a peaceful Ramadan after comparing niqab-wearers to bank robbers or letterboxes.
Probably again with her encouragement, the one-time petrolhead Boris retweeted the same excited message as Carrie about the visit of the Swedish teenage eco-warrior Greta Thunberg.
Carrie has even succeeded in persuading the cheese-and-chorizo fan to lose weight, leading a noticeably slighter Boris to complain of being forced to eat a breakfast ‘like some Georgian hermit of porridge with a luxury sprinkling of nuts’. It was perhaps her desire to instil the same sense of order into Boris’s life as in her own that led Carrie to ensure he tame his hair into a neat short back and sides.
Ultimately, Boris craves adulation above all else. He may tire of Carrie’s self-improvement schedule if it doesn’t deliver the keys to Number 10. Many women have tried and failed to conquer him – and got damaged in the process.
Carrie has proved her steeliness tempered by an empathy and political conviction her lover often lacks. If politics were truly meritocratic, it might be her name mentioned as a possible future leadership contender rather than his. Some friends hope her affair with Boris will be only a passing infatuation so that she too can aim for the top. Time at least is on her side.
Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity. Her new book A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy Virginia Hall is published by Virago, £20.