“She’s buying gold wallpaper,” Boris Johnson is said to have told panicked aides last February of his fiancee Carrie Symonds’ interior decorating plans for their No 11 flat. The costs far exceeded the £30,000 allowance for prime ministers, and apparent attempts last year to cover them by other means – Conservative party funds, a charitable trust and Tory donors – appear to have failed.
As well as Dominic Cummings’ diatribe over the “unethical, foolish and possibly illegal” refurbishment spending saga, Helen MacNamara, the Cabinet Office’s director general of propriety and ethics, was also reported to be strongly opposed.
Then, in August, Downing Street aides briefed she was to be moved from her role, perhaps to a permanent secretary role in another Whitehall department. But MacNamara chose to depart altogether – to a role at the Premier League. Concerns over “cash for curtains” may have been a factor in the departure of both Cummings and MacNamara.
Yet Symonds’ influence is far greater than rattan furniture. Her portrayal as a decor obsessive demanding expensive trinkets from Lulu Lytle is sexist, according to her allies, who point out she is an experienced communications professional.
She does not sit on committees, or have great access to official documents or decision-making, but she is helping to redesign the vision and the personnel at No 10.
One area of interest for Symonds is the environment, though her passion is more about biodiversity and animal welfare than carbon targets. No 10 was recently forced to strongly deny reports she attempted to have the environment secretary, George Eustice, moved from his role for being insufficiently enthusiastic about animal protection.
Beyond policy areas, some former aides suggest there has been a chilling effect across Downing Street, even if inadvertently, on the prime minister’s ability to hire or retain high-level staff linked to Symonds’ influence.
After the departure of the director of communications, Lee Cain, alongside Cummings late last year, the communications team has been in flux. Cain’s replacement left to join the Sun. Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s press secretary who had been much hyped as an ally of Symonds and a fresh direction for a toxic workplace, is also out of the fray, redirected to be spokesman for Cop26, with her planned daily TV briefings abandoned.
Jack Doyle, a former Daily Mail journalist who joined No 10 after the election, now has the top job, with Rosie Bate-Williams, who came via Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ), becoming the new press secretary.
But some MPs have questioned why the prime minister has made internal promotions rather than taking the opportunity to get in a fresh, more experienced name. Those in the frame were said to be Sarah Sands, the ex-editor of the BBC’s Today programme, and Peter Dominiczak, the former Telegraph political editor turned strategist.
One ex-aide claimed in reference to Symonds: “The problem with taking that job is that there is always someone inside the building who thinks they can do the job better than you – and someone who the PM listens to more than you … She’ll be watching your every move. Even when she doesn’t interfere, you feel the presence.”
In a sign of the level of tensions, another former colleague said: “The PM has lost all of his closest, most trusted friends and aides, and the reason is her.” There is one survivor – the Brexit negotiator David Frost – who previously threatened to quit until he was given his own power base in the form of a ministerial position.
The most powerful people in government now are all close to Symonds. They include Simone Finn, the deputy chief of staff whose 30th birthday party was attended by the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, and Johnson; and the prime minister’s adviser Henry Newman, a long-time Gove aide who Symonds reportedly described as one of her “favourite people”. Her other close friend is Meg Powell-Chandler, who manages the Downing Street grid and was also initially tipped for the head of communications role.
Symonds is also close to many ex-Conservative Campaign Headquarters special advisers now spread across Whitehall, as well as a number of lobby journalists from her time as a Tory press officer, some of whom were often invited to the flat in No 11 – until Covid put paid to indoor socialising.
Stratton and Symonds were never as close as portrayed in the December reports of the power struggle: one Whitehall source said, it was a simply a preference of Stratton’s style over that of Cummings and Cain. The source suggested the current rows still stem from the ousted aides and that internally the atmosphere is more harmonious.
Nevertheless, the Symonds-Stratton relationship is said to have cooled and the TV briefings that the latter was meant to have fronted have been cancelled.
MPs have begun to believe there needs to be someone inside Downing Street with longterm political experience and clout who can take on Cummings and any other bitter ex-aides – someone who is not Symonds.
“We need a big political hitter in No 10 to rule the roost and be tough with everyone,” one senior MP said. “Too many inexperienced incompetents … [Chief of staff Dan] Rosenfield is very good but he is basically a civil servant. We need someone who can run things on the political side.”