It seems a lifetime ago now that Camilla Parker Bowles was a scarlet woman, a mistress so reviled some felt she would never be accepted by the public. This week it was announced that she will become Queen consort when her husband becomes king, in what felt like the final reward for years of being a Good Wife; the kind who supportively, unselfishly and discreetly enables her husband to become the best version of himself. As an anonymous royal source told the Daily Mail approvingly, Camilla saw her job as doing whatever she was asked to do: “You don’t try to shape the role to your advantage. It’s about duty and service.” And if it’s taken three solid decades of self-effacement to transform her from hate figure to national treasure – well, nobody said being a Good Wife was easy, or indeed fun.
Carrie Johnson has certainly found it hard going, judging by a new biography from the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft in which her critics portray her as the wrong kind of wife entirely; too meddlesome, too “woke”, too insistent on her husband changing the odd nappy, and altogether too unlike her predecessor, Marina Wheeler, who made his life run so smoothly that he didn’t have to worry about anything (and was duly rewarded for her efforts by being repeatedly cheated on). Poor Boris needs “mothering”, we’re told, not someone nagging him about net zero. Setting aside the fact that portraying the prime minister as a needy manchild does him no favours, the trouble with this reductive nonsense is that as an explanation for his current misfortunes, it simply doesn’t wash.
Wheeler was not some surrendered wife content with reverently rearranging her husband’s sock drawer, but a leading QC and committed Brexiter who argued trenchantly in the run-up to the referendum for curtailing the influence of the European court of justice, and was widely credited with persuading her wobbling husband to back Brexit. (Wifely influence can be surprisingly acceptable in Tory circles, so long as it’s in the “right” direction.)
Carrie Johnson, meanwhile, may well have been guilty of using the network she once developed as a special adviser to steer her husband’s government in her preferred direction, but she has become a lightning rod for unfair criticism and downright misogyny. Downing Street can be a lonely place for spouses, but perhaps particularly one dealing in quick succession with the near-death of her husband, two births, a miscarriage and rumours that he might be pining for the last wife, all while trying to find her footing on a very public tightrope. It’s too easy to blame every controversial decision, intragovernment tension or inexplicable U-turn on her whispering in the prime ministerial ear, when all too often the problem is his own ideological slipperiness and strategic preference for chaos. Just as it did in the days of Camilla being pitted against Diana, setting two wives against each other conveniently obscures the role of the man stood between them.
All successful marriages are partnerships, and in politics that’s perhaps unusually true. David Cameron would have been a different man without Samantha shaking up some of his assumptions; Theresa May drew confidence from rock-steady Philip. But it is prime ministers who set the direction of their governments and the culture inside Downing Street.
Johnson’s hatred of personal confrontation, learned in childhood, leaves him wanting to be all things to all people. While this fuzziness is electoral catnip – who else could have persuaded so many starkly different groups of voters in 2019 that he was simultaneously on all their sides? – it is no recipe for clear leadership internally. Those who have worked for him describe a secretive man, who in an argument leaves both sides with the impression he agrees with them before reneging on one the minute he leaves the room. As prime minister, he is forced daily into making hard choices that reveal either his true convictions or strange lack of them, while the glib half-truths to which he resorts when cornered are quickly exposed.
None of that is his wife’s fault. The strengths and weaknesses Johnson exhibits as prime minister are the same strengths and weaknesses evident throughout his career. And to the extent that Carrie has power over his decisions, it can only be the power he allows her to have. Like blaming a mistress for the breakup of a marriage, blaming a wife for a politician’s failures obscures the fact that he’s the one who made a vow to the country – and the one ultimately responsible for sticking to it.