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20Mar

First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson – thinly veiled and thinly drawn

Michael Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography can’t seem to decide whether the prime minister’s wife is a shallow non-entity or a sinister power behind the throne

Carrie Johnson is a fascinating woman. An undoubtedly complex character, inspiring fierce loyalty from some and equally fierce loathing in others, she wields an influence unlike any previous British prime minister’s wife and arguably represents a new archetype of female power. But if Michael Ashcroft’s thoroughly unauthorised biography of her is to be believed, she only really got interesting when she met her husband.

Her old headteacher reports that “she didn’t stand out” and there is little memorable to say about her student years. Politically, an early boyfriend describes a “fairly blank canvas”, who fell into working for the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith (her springboard to a press officer job at party headquarters and subsequent special adviser gig) largely because of a shared passion for animal welfare. The one character who really comes alive in the early chapters is her father, Matthew Symonds, co-founder of the Independent newspaper, accused of brandishing packets of condoms in morning conference – a way, one ex-colleague suggests, of letting everyone know that despite being married he was still having lots of sex – and trying to wangle his mistress Josephine McAffee a job on the paper. When Carrie was born as a result of this affair, he financially supported and spent time with his daughter, but didn’t leave his wife. Something here sounds uncannily familiar, but if there are intriguing parallels between the absent father and the married ex-journalist two decades her senior who Carrie eventually fell for, Ashcroft isn’t the writer to explore them. His real interest isn’t in making sense of her character but in how he thinks she shaped a Conservative government.

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