All of us remember studying a Shakespeare play in secondary school. A pleasure or a nightmare depending on your view of the Bard, one of the popular choices teachers would choose was Macbeth. A tale as old as time, it charts Macbeth’s murderous quest to become King of Scotland. By his side, whispering encouragement into his ear, is Lady Macbeth, the manipulator clad in silken white.
This is a trope that has been widely repeated throughout history. The latest person levelled with the charge of exerting a level of influence akin to Lady Macbeth is Carrie Johnson, wife of the Prime Minister. Amidst the numerous charges of failings levelled at the occupant of Downing Street – Partygate, his incompetence and laziness, an inadequate response to the pandemic and cost of living crisis – Carrie Johnson has now faced criticism too for her apparent manipulation.
Carrie has rejected the charges, stating she has been subject to a brutal campaign
Such accusations reached a crescendo with the publication of ‘First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson’ by the billionaire Lord Ashcroft. Published earlier than had been initially scheduled (nobody wants to read a biography of a former Prime Minister’s wife), this apparently ‘carefully researched’ biography levels a number of charges at her.
These include messaging staff from the Prime Minister’s phone, interfering in political decisions and arranging for the hiring and firing of staff depending on who she favoured. Carrie Johnson herself has rejected the charges, stating she has been subject to a brutal campaign and plays no role in government. In my mind, all these charges seek to do is miss the target for who should really be the culprit for any such government wrongdoing.
It is not wrong or sexist to question the political influence any relative of an official has on the decisions they make. If the official is elected, it is they who have the mandate from voters to pursue a specific policy charge and set the ground running for a particular policy path. Similarly, even if the official is unelected, they were the ones appointed and who passed a job interview, not their partner.
There is no doubt Carrie Johnson is a more politically engaged spouse than her predecessors. While Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samatha Cameron and Philip May were unwavering figures of loyalty, they each had other careers to pursue and were not ‘party political’. Loyal without question to their partner in charge, they did not have the same political engagement.
Carrie Johnson is different in that regard. Having worked at Conservative Campaign Head Quarters (CCHQ), acted as a special advisor and played a more active role on Twitter, she naturally has her own political interests – the environment, social liberalism – which may have affected the Prime Minister. She may have even offered him some advice or suggested a particular solution to a problem.
News flash! All partners of leaders do this. They would be a poorer partner for not doing so. Whenever any of us have needed to make a big decision that could have a big consequence, we rely on those we trust to offer advice and guidance. And there is perhaps no bigger decision to make than as Prime Minister, the most important political figure in the country.
Johnson’s failings and inadequacies as Prime Minister reflect characteristics that have not emerged after meeting Carrie, but traits that have afflicted him his entire life
Yet even if Carrie Johnson was playing a far larger role in the running of Downing Street – the reports have not been confirmed – it is the fault of Boris Johnson for not making clear where leisure ends and where his work begins. It is one of the weaknesses of the British system that we don’t have an office of the First Lady/Gentlemen, where at least the influence of a spouse would be more transparent.
Indeed, Johnson’s failings and inadequacies as Prime Minister reflect characteristics that have not emerged after meeting Carrie, but traits that have afflicted him his entire life. As a journalist, he was sacked from the Times for inventing a quote, while, as editor of the Spectator, regular accusations were made against Johnson of being lazy, filing copy late and delegating all tasks elsewhere. Again, this was all before Carrie Johnson entered the scene.
This trend of laziness and failing to recognise consequences did not stop as a politician. When Mayor of London, Johnson purchased a water cannon (which Theresa May later sold) and promised a garden bridge which was never built. His tenure at the Foreign Office was a disaster, making one unforced diplomatic error after another in his choice of language, all without any sense of consequence. That Johnson has been able to, in the eyes of some, redeem himself from this period is just remarkable.
While the figures around us will always shape the person we are, the Prime Minister ultimately bares ultimate moral agency for the decisions that are taken – along with any successes and mistakes made. Ultimately, it was Macbeth’s own obsession with power that made his downfall inevitable. Carrie Johnson may be a flawed figure, but those aiming to attack her are simply missing the target. They must shift their aim.