The business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has claimed Boris Johnson’s wife is “under scrutiny in a way that perhaps other prime ministers’ spouses weren’t”, but claimed reporting about her was not sexist.
Carrie Johnson’s role in her husband’s premiership has often been under the spotlight, and over the weekend a biography of Mrs Johnson by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft was serialized in the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday, which sought to look at her alleged influence on the PM’s decision-making.
Lord Ashcroft, writing in the Email, said his research had suggested her “behaviour is preventing him from leading Britain as effectively as the voters deserve”.
But allies of Mrs Johnson have previously dismissed the criticism as “sexist”, and Kwasi Kwarteng said the ire aimed at her was “interesting”.
It has been alleged that Mrs Johnson has been caught up in a number of scandals involving the prime minister, including suggestions she pushed for the luxury redecoration of the flat the couple share in No 11 Downing Street, and that she was key in the evacuation of the Nowzad charity animals ahead of humans from Kabul.
No 10 has denied Mr and Mrs Johnson had any involvement in the evacuation.
But Guto Harri, the newly appointed director of communications at Downing Street, speaking on the BBC Newscast podcast last week, said the episode “raises that other specter that never goes away, of who is influencing him (the PM) and we all know who’s being accused of doing so on this occasion, because she is an animal lover more than him really .”
Asked if he was referring to Mrs Johnson, who was a former Tory press chief, he replied: “You said it, not me.”
Dominic Cummings the prime minister’s former chief aide, has made clear he was no fan of Mrs Johnson, and has said she had wanted to “get rid” of him from No 10.
He alleged she was at one point “trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments at Number 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs”.
However, after his allies dubbed Mrs Johnson “Princess Nut Nut” in press briefings, David Cameron’s wife Samantha said the briefings were “sexist.”
Mrs Cameron, who lived in Downing Street for six years, was asked last year on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour whether the description of Mr Johnson’s wife-to-be was “flagrantly sexist”, she replied: “I think it is … I think that it is very unfair to pick her out as having some kind of undue influence.”
This was echoed by Mr Kwarteng on Sunday, as he told Times Radio: “The reportage that somehow she’s got undue influence, I don’t think that’s true, the prime minister has been in politics for 25 years and has a pretty strong set of ideas.”
But asked if there was an element of sexism in the treatment of Mrs Johnson compared to spouses of former prime ministers, Mr Kwarteng replied: “I wouldn’t say that but I do think it’s interesting when the spouse is someone in their thirties and has got open positions that are well known, people feel free to criticize – I think that’s interesting.”
Pressed on what he meant by “interesting”, the minister replied: “I don’t think it’s sexist, I’m not going to go down the route of saying it’s sexist but I’m saying her views are under scrutiny in a way that perhaps other prime ministers’ spouses weren’t.”
Journalist Sarah Vine, whose divorce from Michael Gove was finalized last month after 20 years of marriage, claimed the focus on Mrs Johnson was “the equivalent of political slut shaming”.
She told the BBC’s sunday morning programme: “The trouble is, it’s always the easiest thing to do to blame the woman and the truth is far more complicated than that.
“If Boris Johnson has given Carrie too much access or too much leeway, that’s sort of his fault. He is the person in charge. He is the prime minister.”
She added: “The way that she’s being portrayed as this… I know that the nickname Carrie Antoinette is witty and a good pun and we all love a good pun, but I just don’t think her head deserves to be on the block in this way.
“Things have gone wrong and mistakes, terrible mistakes, have been made… All the partygate stuff and I agree that all of that is completely unacceptable, but it’s not just her who must take responsibility for this. Ultimately, I think it’s Johnson and the way he’s run No 10.”
Ms Vine said that from her own experience it was “unbelievably damaging and difficult on a personal level” when a person was “filtered through the sort of toxic filter of politics and power, and then you’re made to look like something that you are actually, really genuinely not”.
She said: “The mental toll on her will be significant.”
Labor MP Jess Phillips has previously labeled criticism of Mrs Johnson as “sexist” and “ageist”.
She said there had been briefing by “men who don’t like Carrie Symonds because they don’t have the influence they want to have”.
She added: “I have literally seen no evidence in my day-to-day life that Carrie Symonds (has too much influence). In some regards, maybe I’d like her to have more – she’s quite a feminist.”
Tory MP Tracey Crouch has also spoken about how she disliked the way that Mrs Johnson had been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth figure.
In Lord Ashcroft’s book, former cabinet minister John Whittingdale, for whom Mrs Johnson previously worked, said the influence she was said to have was inaccurate.
“Yes, I’m sure Boris and Carrie discuss things in a way that previous spouses would not, because they were much less political,” he said. “Samantha Cameron had little interest in politics. Philip May didn’t have a great knowledge of politics.
“This is the first time the PM’s wife has been a committed political activist and had knowledge and experience of working in politics, so of course it’s going to be talked about. But she’s very good. She advised me for 15 months, so I know she’s good.”
He added: “Carrie gets a tough time. It upsets her and I feel sorry for her. It’s a pretty lonely existence. I think they’ve struggled. She doesn’t see as much of Boris as she’d like because he’s trying to run the country.’
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.