Carrie Johnson and our lasting unease about the ‘political spouse’

The Conversation

In what have been a turbulent few weeks for Boris Johnson, the imminent release of Lord Ashcroft’s biography of the prime minister’s wife is adding to his woes.

Extracts published from the book “First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson” accuse the prime minister’s wife of being the “the No 1 problem” in Johnson’s administration.

The prime minister’s wife is accused of “muscling in” – to the point of literally whispering prompts in Johnson’s ear on occasion. An example includes accusations she was involved in a decision to airlift animals out of Afghanistan while stretched government officials were trying to work out how to save people at Kabul airport during the UK’s withdrawal.

It is also fairly evident from the evidence produced by senior civil servant Sue Gray that Carrie Johnson has some questions to answer in relation to gatherings held in Downing Street, where she lives, during pandemic lockdowns.

But regardless of the scale of Carrie Johnson’s potential wrongdoings, describing the PM’s wife as “the No 1 problem” in his administration also runs the risk of (conveniently) letting the prime minister himself off the hook.

‘A’ problem is not ‘the’ problem

Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home (a publication in fact owned by Ashcroft) highlighted a particularly pointed quote when writing about Ashcroft’s claim that “Carrie Johnson’s behaviour is preventing the prime minister leading Britain as effectively as the voters deserve”.

Goodman’s response was to argue that “whether the charge is true or not, it deflects from the main point. Which is that the prime minister himself, not his spouse, bears responsibilities for his decisions”.

And indeed, many high-profile women have faced questions about their role and influence as a female political spouse.

In 1992 US president Bill Clinton famously claimed that he and his wife Hillary came as a “buy one, get one free” deal. Hillary Clinton’s influence continued to raise eyebrows long after her husband’s tenure. She became something of a Rorschach Test regarding the roles of women in public and private. What was said about her arguably revealed less about Clinton herself and more about our values as a wider society.

Tellingly, concerns around spousal influence were very different during Hillary Clinton’s own presidential campaign. In fact, far from shifting onto her husband Bill and his “influence” over his wife, her critics continued to attack her for her past influences over a president who had left office more than a decade previously.

Hillary Clinton was often explicitly compared to a longstanding archetype – Lady Macbeth. An essentially feminine trope, the temptress exploits a fatal flaw in the tragic hero in order to gain influence over him.

The same cannot be said for high-profile male political spouses, from Bill Clinton to Dennis Thatcher, husband to Margaret – or Philip May, husband to Theresa.

Consider how Theresa May’s husband was described when influencing his wife during her leadership. Where Carrie Johnson is described in Ashcroft’s book as having her husband “completely mesmerised”, Philip May was his wife’s “rock”.

May even admitted to making the decision to call a snap election in 2017 during a walking holiday with Philip. Despite the catastrophic fallout of that vote, Mr May appears to have faced little questioning from the public for his input.

At worst, a male spouse is emasculated by a backstage role – think Dennis Thatcher – but the puppeteer/Macbeth trope simply doesn’t apply.

The Lady Macbeth trope

The British public may understandably feel a certain unease around the role of the first lady. After all, it is both undefined and arguably out of date. Although the US system could be criticised for elevating an unelected spouse to a high office of sorts, in both cases, women have to play gender roles very carefully. Who could forget those photos of Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron donning coordinated 1950s frocks to serve up a barbecue at Number 10 when their husbands were in power, carefully curating a certain type of image for the media.

Ashcroft does not even have to explicitly refer to the Macbeth trope in his book excerpts to convey his message about Carrie Johnson. Those defending the prime minister’s wife, including former chancellor George Osborne, understood his meaning and cited the Shakespearean figure themselves. By now, we know that an attempt to centre on the influence of a female political spouse is to implicitly refer to this idea.

The more these the figure of the first lady as a temptress captures the public imagination, the less the story is about Boris Johnson, the person who is actually both in charge of and responsible for decisions about airlifts and abiding by lockdown rules.

Debates will continue about whether Carrie Johnson was in the wrong, or whether she is a private citizen who owes no answers to her husband’s voters. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get to the bottom of how much truth there is to Ashcroft’s book.

But debating the merits of his accusations misses the point. The choice to centre a (female) political spouse in the cross-hairs of this volume – and our collective willingness to allow the debate around said volume to divert attention away from the political leader at a key moment – highlights something much broader at stake. Both are deeply revealing about the roles of men and women in public life.

Orly Siow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.