Carrie-ing the can: Hell hath no fury like a Daily Mail Scorned as the soap opera rolls on...

Or why British political hacks are just gossip columnists with pretensions.


When Number 10 went to war on Dominic Cummings on Friday — with the Prime Minister himself said to have picked up the phone to directly drip the poison — three papers got the goods: The Times, The Telegraph, and The Sun.

The Daily Mail was conspicuous by its absence and the reason why was clear: The staunchly Tory paper and its Sunday sibling — The Mail on Sunday — have been picking at the scab of ‘flatgate’: the allegations about the funding of refurbishments to the Number 11 residence of Boris Johnson, Carrie Symonds, their son Wilfred, and dog Dilyn for months.

They’ve also been the main conduit for other stories about Symonds’ influence on policy and Dilyn’s dodgy doggy behaviour.

While the Mail titles can hardly contain their glee at the soap opera revelations in the opening rounds of the Johnson vs Cummings super wankerweight clash, they’re also pissed off that their rivals got dripfed the ‘scoop’ by the Prime Minister himself.

It’s especially aggravating for Mail on Sunday columnist and perpetual embarrassment machine Dan Hodges who went hard on a government briefed story that the so-called “chatty rat” leaker was, in fact, a “red mole” last week.

Hodges has his revenge today in a column headlined Britain votes for Prime Ministers - not their partners. Boris Johnson needs to get Carrie Symonds to back off which once again focuses the paper’s fire on the Prime Minister’s fiancée. He writes:

Three political stories have dominated over the past week. Carrie has been at the heart of all of them.

First, the schism between Boris and Cummings. Who was agitating hardest for that schism? Carrie.

Second, the decision to axe plans for live Downing Street media briefings, and dispense with the services of media chief Allegra Stratton. Who lobbied strongly for Stratton's appointment, so that she could sideline the candidate preferred by Cummings and his team? Carrie. 'Carrie basically used Allegra,' a No 10 insider told me, 'and then when she didn't need her any more, she dumped her.'

Finally, and potentially most damaging, the growing questions surrounding the estimated £200,000 refurbishment of Downing Street, and the decision to fund it via contributions from Tory donors. Who oversaw this attempt to eradicate all vestiges of what Tatler was contemptuously briefed was 'Theresa May's John Lewis furniture nightmare'? Carrie.

This is just one way to frame those stories and it’s crushingly free of nuance. But then Dan Hodges thinks nuance is a small town in France. In the next paragraph, he clumsily reveals one reason why Symonds is at the centre of his conspiracy board this week — he’d been planning to write his column about her before the Cummings story dropped and didn’t want to waste the ‘work’:

Just before the Cummings statement dropped, I was halfway through writing a column about how Ms Symonds was pressing for the removal of Environment Secretary George Eustace – seen as being too close to the farmers and insufficiently robust on her cherished animal welfare issues. And how her closest friend – and recently appointed government adviser – Nimco Ali had launched an extraordinary public attack on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab for refusing to hold a meeting with her.

While Hodges grandly thinks of himself as a great political commentator, he’s no different to his colleagues on the Mail titles’ Royal or Celebrity desks. It’s simply that the people he gossips about are far less fabulous than the people they focus on. He’s a merchant of tittle-tattle, a conduit for leaks and a megaphone for misinformation. That he has such a penchant for quoting his own words from previous columns only adds to that impression.

Hodges hangs on to whatever scraps of gossip and innuendo he can gather and then delivers them to readers in the most portentous manner possible. Like any purveyor of gossip, his aim is to pass off court intrigue as something far more important. That’s what his column today concludes:

Back in 2019, I said the Prime Minister had to choose between his team and Team Carrie. Today the choice is even starker. What does Boris care about most? His fiancee? Or his country?

And yet, he’s right to say that Symonds has too much influence on the Prime Minister. The real issue is that he and his colleagues at The Mail and Mail on Sunday only object to unelected influence when it’s convenient to them. They’re very comfortable with the influence wielded by their ultimate boss Lord Rothermere, for example.

While Hodges uses his column to dismiss claims that the focus on Symonds is sexist as “ritualistic denunciations”, The Mail on Sunday’s feature-length relitigation of the claims and counterclaims in the Cummings battle leads with “allies of the Prime Minister [levelling] the damning charge that those loyal to the ex-aide had been behind 'nasty and sexist briefings' against Carrie Symonds”.

The piece, bylined to Glenn Owens, the Mail on Sunday’s political editor — who joined Hodges in pushing the “red mole” tall-tale last week, is headlined No 10 rages at 'nasty, sexist' Dominic Cummings as he is said to be plotting to accuse Boris Johnson of being so determined to avoid another lockdown he would tolerate big Covid death toll.

Oh no! Not the shock claim that Boris Johnson was indecisive and incompetent during the most dangerous stages of the pandemic. What a surprise that will come to millions of people who have already concluded that and hundreds of thousands of people who have lost loved ones thanks to a government that initially treated a deadly pandemic like a minor inconvenience.

The big claim in the piece is that the security services have ‘the proof’ that Cummings is the leaker but can’t reveal it for fear of spilling the beans about their methods:

One source claimed that the intelligence services had identified Mr Cummings as the culprit but 'could not publish their evidence because it would reveal the secrets of their tradecraft, including their penetration of WhatsApp messages.

The same claim, likely from the same source, appears in The Sunday Times’ gossipy rundown of the latest episode of the Downing Street soap opera. Only Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund’s piece gives greater detail:

But opponents believe Cummings may be right to fear sanctions. They claim that MI5 has concluded that one person sent a WhatsApp message from the cabinet room just before 6pm on the day after the meeting last autumn where the new curbs in England were discussed. Six people were present: Johnson, Cummings, Cain, another political aide and two senior officials.

According to this account, Cummings was aggravated by Johnson’s indecision and felt he had not been firing on all cylinders since his illness. He therefore decided to leak the news to bounce Johnson into it. MI5, it is claimed, has established that one person in the room had two SIM cards linked to them. That person, sources insist, was Cummings.

It sounds serious and has already provoked much chin-stroking and muttering about metadata from the kind of hacks for whom the merest mention of spies is enough to tent their trousers. I think it’s more like a desperate scare tactic from a Number 10 press operation desperate to send a strong message to Cummings who is now coming for them with a decidedly evil glint in his eye.

Elsewhere in The Sunday Times, Tim Shipman, who has made a name for himself by glomming together industrial amounts of gossip to create ‘definitive’ accounts of recent British political movements, mistakes, and malevolence, attempts to sex up the whole sorry affair as a mafia fallout.

Writing with The Godfather on in the background, Shipman says:

Under pressure that no other prime minister has known since Churchill, Johnson was an imperfect leader. Cummings began privately to describe him as “indecisive”. Johnson knew this.

There was something else too: alpha males banging chests. If Vote Leave was akin to a mafia family, there was always a question over who was really the capo di tutti capi.

Notice how Shipman, who writes entirely in cliché and hyperbole, gifts Johnson with the excuse that he was “under pressure that no other Prime Minister has known since Churchill”. It reveals once again how shallow and narrow in focus those who dominate political reporting and analysis actually are. Just as columnists need to read more books than skimming 1984 and obsessing over Harry Potter, political hacks really must look beyond the bulldog bulk of Churchill.

Like Hodges, Shipman overstretches for a conclusion, attempting to cobble together bombast from the wreckage of banality:

Johnson and Cummings are the two most determined men I have ever met. An understanding of power and the need to win flows through their veins, it is their oxygen. They will both think they can win. The sad truth for their political family is that, in terms of the project they jointly authored, they may both already have lost.

For “determined” read “cynical”. Johnson and Cummings are like Boggis and Bean from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox — one fat, one lean, but both calculating and mean. And though hacks like Shipman have tried desperately for years to frame both as thinkers and tacticians, they’re both bullies and egotists.

Beyond their aesthetic differences, Cummings and Johnson are actually quite similar — they want to be the smartest person in the room and to wield the most power doing it. The important difference though is that Johnson aches to be loved — temporarily at least — while Cummings doesn’t care. That’s why the Prime Minister will be the one most damaged by the punches in this battle.

While the contributions from Hodges, Shipman, Pogrund and Wheeler will get more attention in the paper reviews and on social media, it’s the contribution from Robert Covile, the Sunday Times columnist and director of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies think tank, that’s most interesting.

While the others gather gossip from outside the tent, Colvile was one of the authors of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto and actually has direct experience of how Dominic Cummings works. He writes:

Allies of Cummings have apparently made the comparison to America and Vietnam: a government (led by a man called Johnson) that becomes drained and distracted by an extended period of asymmetric warfare, with Cummings popping up with a few juicy revelations before melting back into the jungle. That is without the further threat of inquiries and investigations into whether the government, and the prime minister, have broken the rules.

Whatever its ultimate outcome, this episode says some uncomfortable things about how we are governed. Cummings’s own time in No 10 was hardly without incident: like Mourinho, he loves to pick fights, both internally and externally. And like the Portuguese manager, he has the gift of making people feel 10ft tall, but also one inch high. Even those who admire him acknowledge that he and Lee Cain, the press chief who worked on Vote Leave alongside Cummings, were “wartime generals”.

Colvile nods to the Carrie Symonds question with a reference to “personality clashes” but he provides a more cold-eyed, gossip-light analysis of the dynamics within Downing Street:

Despite his considerable power, Cummings was not in charge: he might have been Thomas Cromwell, but Henry was still Henry. Paul Goodman of Conservative Home has argued persuasively that Downing Street under Johnson, like London’s City Hall before it, is best analysed as a monarchical court…

This in turn has implications for the processes of government. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, reportedly wants to take the prime minister’s phone away, because pretty much everyone in Westminster has the number. But that would give the courtiers too much power over the king. The appointment of Dan Rosenfield as No 10 chief of staff was meant to bring discipline to the operation. But having a prime minister personally ring round Fleet Street to start a knife fight with Dom Cummings, two weeks before key elections, is not exactly following the script.

Of course, Colvile — a think-tanker, Tory freelancer, and former Telegraph Comment editor — has an angle plus a set of contacts and allies to think of but his drier assessment of the briefings and counter-briefings is a lot closer to reality than the gossipy, hyperventilating offerings from others in the newspapers this morning.

The Mail and Mail on Sunday will continue to focus on Symonds because the soapy approach and opportunity to talk about soft furnishings fit with their readership.

The Times and Sunday Times will stick to presenting the protagonists as titanic figures because that, in turn, gives their coverage of the mud-raking and shit slinging more gravitas.

And The Sun and the Telegraph titles will remain firmly wedged up the government’s arse, for now, reporting that every fart is perfumed.

You can expect a lot more mudslinging towards and from Carrie Symonds tomorrow. It’s just good box office.