Make no mistake: I am not a fan of Carrie Symonds. Equally, this doesn’t mean that I am content to watch idly while legitimate criticism of her is is railroaded through channels of misogynistic fanfare.
The news that the Bow Group, a think tank to which many prominent Conservatives align themselves, is calling for an inquiry into the power of Carrie Symonds is not problematic in itself. However, criticism of Symonds has a habit of stemming from a somewhat unpleasant place. While Symonds and whatever power she holds (inordinate or not) deserve scrutiny, we must ask ourselves where this scrutiny comes from and how it is deployed.
Symonds is of course an interesting figure in the Conservative party. The party’s former director of communications, she is well known for her passionate views on animal rights and climate change. She appears to be a defender of trans rights, and notably waived her right to anonymity when testifying against the sexually predatory cab driver John Worboys. She is perceived as the influential force behind Conservative party green policies, as and when they appear.
This doesn’t mean, however, that she is some kind of Lady Macbeth style manipulator, pulling the strings of the country from a secret throne. If we want to criticise her power we should feel able to do so; but we should do it fairly and without the spectre of sexism corrupting our every word.
Because sexism it is. Criticism of Symonds seems to come packaged in a few different forms, and each separate package seems to play to its own misogynistic trope.
Take, for example, the characterisation of Symonds as a kind of temptress, seducing a devoted partner nto handing over all of his power. We can see it in the choice of images often favoured by tabloids – a particular one of Symonds leaning over and whispering into Johnson’s ear is very popular. And of course, many journalists are open in espousing this trope. Jo Ellison, writing for the Financial Times, makes it clear that she believes Carrie’s skill in ‘inflaming the PM’s passions’ has directly translated to influence over policy at Number 10.
Other characterisations are even less palatable. Take, for example, the constant references to Symonds in pseudo-royal language; she’s been branded a ‘consort’ more than once, and let’s not forget the unpleasant ‘Princess Nut Nut’ nickname that Cummings and his allies branded her with.
And Tom Utley in the Daily Mail makes it clear that he sees Johnson as a beleaguered partner, handing over the fate of the country to Symonds for the sake of a tranquil life. He suggests that Symonds is manipulating Johnson and makes a (perhaps predictable) comparison to yet another woman who certain swathes of the media dislike – Meghan Markle.
All these characterisations indicate that Symonds’ treatment in the media and in some political circles is not really fair. Like Meghan Markle, she is a woman who perhaps holds more progressive views than her partner. As a result of these views, both women appear to have had some influence on the views of their partners. This is pretty normal in a relationship; it doesn’t necessarily mean something sinister is going on just because one partner’s ideas begin to rub off on the other.
Symonds is clearly independent-minded. She has her own (activist) interests and has often been vocal about her beliefs. She’s not a shrinking wallflower and because her interests lie in politics, it’s natural that we see her participating in the political sphere.
That her independence of thought should draw censure from certain corners perhaps isn’t surprising. Symonds’ views in some respects lie very much to the left of the Tory party centre-ground. We shouldn’t therefore be surprised to see that many members of the party are hostile towards her and her influence. But unfortunately and perhaps only because she is a woman, this influence has unleashed a torrent of criticism that seems to be wholly centred on gender stereotypes.
Certain factions of the Tory party may detest some of Symonds’ liberal views. This repugnance is certainly echoed in and amplified by outlets such as the Daily Mail and Express. But the way that Symonds is depicted – as a ‘woke’ warrior bringing the country to its knees by seducing a noble knight – is both damaging and patently absurd. The use of language seeking to almost emasculate Johnson appears to be a taunt from the right-wing press, who use old-fashioned tropes of masculinity and femininity in a seeming attempt to provoke a reaction – preferably, they hope, in the ‘anti-woke’ direction.
But this isn’t fair. Because women who think differently to their partner are not the problem. In fact, couples who don’t agree on everything or hold exactly the same political views are probably no bad thing for society at large. But because Symonds dares to think differently, she is attacked with all sorts of unfounded and unfair criticism.
The Bow Group’s latest move was to frame Symonds’ influence as an example of ‘cronyism’, something that was surely a joke if it wasn’t a wholly un-ironic faux-pas. With Matt Hancock’s penchant for his chums having been made explicitly clear, it seems bizarre that Symonds (who, to our knowledge, has not personally received any Covid-related government contracts) should be portrayed as an over-fed crony.
Anyhow, while the sort of inquiry that the Bow Group has called for is not something to be dismissed, we should bear in mind that Symonds may be influential, but her influence really can’t go that far. It is clear that this government is not storming forward with revolutionary (and tangible) environmental reforms, and a prevented badger cull does not equal state-sanctioned veganism. In reality, Carrie is probably a woman with strong views of her own which understandably filter through to her partner. If we’re going to condemn women for this, then we really need to assess how much we’ve actually moved on in the past 100 years.