Undue influence: Carrie Symonds and the curse of political wives

The farmers of Derbyshire are up in arms because they have been denied a licence to cull badgers. The influence of the prime minister’s girlfriend is suspected, given that Carrie Symonds is an animal lover, a conservationist and was briefed by the Badger Trust a few weeks before the decision.

This is no idle chatter: the National Farmers’ Union has brought a case to judicial review naming Symonds. In response, Labour’s former deputy leader Tom Watson wrote on Twitter: “Good on Carrie Symonds for having opinions. It’s quite ridiculous to expect her not to share them with her partner.” It is a slightly disingenuous point, since what the NFU objects to is not that the opinions were shared, but that they may have had regulatory effect.

This is part of a general, legitimate disquiet about the prime minister. It is fine to have the odd maverick in your circle of trust, but Dominic Cummings’s extravagant and vocal weirdness hints at an administration that is all wildcards.

It is more likely, however, that Johnson’s character and modus operandi are irrelevant here, since Symonds is a girlfriend – and there is no more dangerous role to have around a seat of power, except for wife. If the leader is considered weak, callow or disengaged (Charles I, for example), his partner is seen as manipulative and secretive. If the leader is considered strong or of independent mind (Tony Blair, Barack Obama), his wife is seen as a Delilah figure, exercising powers of sorcery over him. How else could a strong man allow himself to be influenced, except in the weaving of a spell? The panic about Cherie Blair’s Roman Catholicism in the 00s was framed as being about her undue impact on policy; in truth, it was inspired by a general fear of spiritual woohoo.

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The assumption is always that the spouse will have unearned, unaccountable powers – then the world works backwards from that to assemble its case: it is because she is Spanish, or a keep-fit fanatic, or a God-botherer. Symonds is lucky, in a way, that the smoking gun was her love of badgers. Because, seriously, don’t we all love badgers?


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