The spouse to the prime minister is the most misunderstood part of the British constitution. The now-Ms Johnson has far greater potential to influence than the norm
Lloyd George married his mistress and confidante, Frances Stevenson, but only 20 years later after he left No 10. We have to go back a further 100 years to find a prime minister becoming hitched in office, Lord Liverpool in 1822. And to find comparable wedding festivities, as Saturday’s couple enjoyed, in the No 10 walled gardens, we have to go back 70 years to when PM-in-waiting Anthony Eden married Winston Churchill’s niece Clarissa in 1952.
None though are good omens for the new couple, or reliable pointers to the future for them and the country. Liverpool‘s premiership and health were on a downward trajectory after he remarried in 1822, Lloyd George was dead within 18 months of his eventual marriage to Frances, while Eden’s premiership crashed in oily flames in the Suez Crisis after less than two years, with a forlorn Clarissa complaining that the canal was flowing through her drawing room in Downing Street.
The contemporary discourse since has not been helpful in understanding the significance of Saturday’s coup de théâtre. Many have chosen to interpret the wedding‘s timing as a clumsy distraction from the Dominic Cummings explosion of last week, while Catholics have debated whether or not it was right for the couple to be married in the Church, and in its most revered British edifice, Westminster Cathedral. Others have drawn attention to the hurt that the marriage may have caused Johnson‘s previous wives.
There is certainly a moral argument for the marriage that needs to be heard. Christianity is much about forgiveness and good example. Whatever his sins in the past, Johnson is no doubt sincere in his love for his wife. I believe nothing but good will come for the most powerful man in the country to be seen to be marrying.
I believe the institution, and bringing up children within its stable edifice, needs to be upheld and supported. Carrie is a formidable woman: to have a practising Catholic who believes deeply in environmental protection as arguably the second most powerful figure in the country has considerable potential for good.
The spouse to the prime minister is the most misunderstood part of the British constitution. They’re far more influential than the media, commentators and historians generally acknowledge. The now-Ms Johnson has far greater potential to influence than the norm.
Johnson is an incomplete prime minister: part intuitive brilliance, part shambolic intuitionist, over whom dominant individuals hold disproportionate influence. Similar individuals held much less influence over more decisive prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.
In Johnson phase one, until the summer of 2020, Dominic Cummings held sway, a glowering dark presence like Gollum in DieLord of the Rings. Never in British history has an adviser to the prime minister had such power. Like a jilted lover, Cummings now spits poisonous fumes as Carrie succeeds him as the most influential force on the prime minister. Both are far more alike than they might care to recognise – modernisers, technocrats, impatient for radical change.
But where Cummings was all about himself, and rendered Johnson weak and foolish, Carrie may well bring out the best in him. Cummings accentuated his weaknesses; Carrie might yet compensate for them, allowing his considerable and overlooked strengths, of empathy, optimism and communication, to blossom.
Cummings was necessary for Johnson to emerge as prime minister. But his historic role was over when he couldn’t adapt to the subtleties needed for government. Carrie may yet prove to be Arwen who guides the wandering Boris towards the power and status that he has longed for all his life.
Sir Anthony Seldon’s book ‘Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister’ is available now