Carrie is a providing a public service, if you think about it
Like a few other high-profile roles in public life – Prince of Wales, Olympic gold medal winner, stand-up comedian – there isn’t much of a job description for the role of prime-ministerial spouse.
Hence, misunderstandings and controversies have enveloped Carrie Johnson since she took up with the prime minister a couple of years ago. It’s fair to say that few other partners have faced the same sort of intense scrutiny and criticism, with its strains of misogyny – but it is not unprecedented.
Interestingly, the last spouse to be bullied and abused to anything like the same extent as Ms Johnson was Cherie Blair.
Cherie Booth QC, to give her her professional title, was another career woman, whose work, broadly speaking, touched on political matters. She was, like her husband, a lawyer. They met as pupils under Tony Blair’s future lord chancellor, Derry Irvine, and her career led her to undertake human rights work.
Some of her enemies in the press cooked up a theory that the New Labour pledge to introduce the Human Rights Act was a thinly disguised scam to generate more fat fees for Booth’s chambers. The truth, of course, was that the act only brought over to the British courts the work that was being done by British lawyers in the European Court of Human Rights, but they didn’t let that spoil the fun.
Ms Blair was also supposedly less deferential to royalty than was her husband – hardly a crime – and possibly a bit more of a socialist. She was supposedly manipulating him towards left-wing extremism, or what is nowadays called “wokery”. It was almost as though she was using hypnotism or sorcery. This was enough for her to be labelled “the wicked witch”. For some reason, perhaps her well-known working-class roots (her father was the actor Tony Booth), her very existence seemed to enrage the Daily Mail in particular.
She was also supposed to be too keen on freebies, which is a bit rich coming from a load of journalists, and she invested in property – partly for the benefit of her children, and again, hardly the sort of thing to which Tories are averse.
Cherie Blair is an interesting precedent because, like Carrie Johnson, and very unusually among spouses, she was “political”. Indeed, Cherie would probably have gone on to become at least a Labour MP, had Tony not made it first and had she not been such a successful lawyer. It’s the very idea of a woman having independent political opinions and ideas, and discussing them with her husband – an inevitable consequence of their sharing such a lifestyle – that seems to horrify some.
By contrast, men with political opinions of their own have been treated very differently. Philip May, who met the young Theresa Brasier through a shared interest in Conservative politics, was almost deferentially referred to as her “most trusted adviser”, and nobody seems to have minded her discussing, say, the merits of the Irish backstop with him over an evening drink. Indeed, it was thought useful for her to get another point of view – that of a typical Conservative activist, and someone with no axe to grind or favours to seek.
No one nicknamed him “Prince Philip” or seriously accused him of interference or undue influence. It would also be surprising if the pair of them didn’t occasionally mention, let’s say, her wayward foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in conversation. After Philip had put the bins out, obviously.
The same goes for Denis and Margaret Thatcher, though in that case the pair were both such instinctive Tory reactionaries that they agreed on most things anyway. To the extent that Mr Thatcher did have influence, it was a matter of mild curiosity and gentle satire rather than scandal. Denis was sympathetic to apartheid-era South Africa, where he had business interests and friends, and he perhaps influenced his wife in that direction when it came to sanctions in the 1980s.
He thought the BBC, the trade unions and the teaching profession were all infested with communists, and so did she. He backed her in her tussles with powerful figures such as Nigel Lawson and Michael Heseltine. He was partisan. At the end, though, when she was facing a final leadership crisis, he was instrumental in persuading her to resign. Imagine if it got out that Carrie had told Boris the game was up and he ought to quit!
Most prime ministers meet their wives or husbands long before they get to No 10. Many know exactly what they are getting involved in, although Mary Wilson thought she was destined for a quiet life as the wife of an Oxford don when she married Harold. In any case, most pairs are well used to each other by the time they get to Downing Street; but Carrie and Boris have had much less time to develop that same sympathy. Carrie has contacts, causes and interests of her own, and unfortunately for her they are viewed with suspicion by some in her party and in government.
Far better, in that sense, for Carrie to stick to charity work or a non-political business activity, as Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron did – but why should she? She’s not a lobbyist. She’s not on staff. Nor is any husband or wife of a prime minister, but they are central to the life of their spouse, and they will make a difference to it.
The only prime minister not to have had to worry about their other half’s opinions, or what the press thought about his or her behaviour, was Ted Heath, the lifelong batchelor. Once when Heath was prime minister, or so the story goes, his arch-rival Wilson was walking past No 10 of an evening and looked up at the light on in the flat. Wilson reflected on how lonely poor old Ted must be up there, playing his piano, with no one to share the burdens of a long, wearisome day.
By the same token, Carrie doesn’t seem to be given much credit for the sacrifices she makes and the support she gives to her husband. You may recall the coverage of the infamous row the Johnsons had in her flat in June 2019, before Boris became PM, when the police had to be called. Apparently, he told her to “get off my f**king laptop”, and she told him: “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.” Living with Mr Johnson is a type of high-pressure public service, if you think about it. It can’t be easy.