Public cash and Carrie: Why reporting on the court of King Boris has gone to the dogs

Writing about Boris Johnson like a celebrity works in his favour. It means he can continue to duck serious scrutiny.

One Boris Johnson anecdote that’s rolled out with even more tedious regularity than the theory that his entire ascent to power was built on Have I Got News For You appearances is the cute/creepy tale that his childhood dream was to become “world king”.

While finding himself in Number 10 is likely to be the apex of Johnson’s political achievements unless some further quite specific apocalypse turns him into Mightily Aggrieved Max, he can comfort himself with the fact that Britain’s media reports on his administration as if he was a monarch.

It is the Court of The Sun’s King and Carrie Symonds, the woman for whom the Prime Minister left his long-suffering last wife, Marina Wheeler, while she was battling cancer, has become Shroedinger’s Consort — at once the brains behind the throne and a clumsy manipulator influencing poor old ‘Boris’.

Even the couple’s dog, Dilyn — purchased to add a note of domestic normality to the Prime Minister shipping his much-younger fiancee into Number 10 even before his divorce was done with — has become an avatar of court chaos.

The Times, which set off a row about the poor puppy in March 2020 by reporting that life in the Downing Street flat was “proving challenging for Boris Johnson” and received an angry response from Symonds (“There has never been a more loved dog than our Dilyn…”), reports:

Unfortunately for Symonds her devotion to Dilyn is being used against her as part of a bitter No 10 power battle. It started last week with a curious tale in the Daily Mail suggesting that Symonds was upset when an aide tried to prevent Dilyn from relieving himself on her handbag. Reports came this weekend that Dilyn had caused carnage at Chequers, chewing the antique furniture and soiling the carpets, with the bill for the damage being sent to the prime minister.

After that first Daily Mail piece headlined Dilyn's Watergate! How Carrie Symonds' dog caused a stink in Downing Street after cocking his leg over handbag belonging to Dominic Cummings' aide, the paper and its ugly sister in tabloid shenanigans The Mail on Sunday have run numerous other takes on the ‘Dilyn debate’ and suggested that all this canine controversy is the result of barking briefings by the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings.

The Mail has reported on these goings-on in hysterical style and The Times follows suit with copy that veers into parody then keeps on running:

Things were said to have come to a head when Dilyn bounded up to Johnson with a book between his teeth, prompting the prime minister to declare, in the style of Henry II enraged with Thomas Becket: “Someone shoot that f***ing dog.” …

… Some have even suggested that Cummings still holds a grudge after Dilyn “humped” his leg at Chequers. It is an odd coincidence that the briefings have cropped up at the end of a week when Symonds was accused of using her position to promote key allies.

Regardless of who is to blame, the stories appear to reflect as badly on the lively puppy as his owners. A dog may be a man’s best friend — but he can also be useful to his enemies.

The journalist bylined on that ‘vital’ reporting is Oliver Wright, The Times’ Policy Editor, who the paper says, “leads the paper’s coverage of government policy”. Good to know he’s all over the puppy policy.

If politics is “showbiz for ugly people” as the old canard has it then political journalism is gossip hackery for the wonkish. The Daily Telegraph picks over Symonds’ fashion choices, putting her in the same box as their beloved Duchess of Cambridge, and the whole Westminster press pack picks over the ‘drama’ in Number 10 with the obsessive interest of a fan recapping The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

And, like a butcher who refuses to let even the most odious offal go to waste, the newspapers have turned their own obsessive coverage of ‘Carrie’ into a debate on misogyny — why are people saying she’s the power behind the throne and why is an arch Tory think-tank demanding an inquiry into her influence? Well, it might have something to do with the endless newspaper stories that frame has as a cross between Marie Antoinette and Milady de Winter, just trussed up in Justine Tabak dresses rather than an uncomfortable corset.

Despite the tabloid framing, it’s actually possible to believe multiple things about the mess in Downing Street:

  1. Symonds, unelected and unaccountable, does have far too much influence on who is employed by her boyfriend’s administration.

  2. The broken system has often meant that the partner of the Prime Minister has more say than they should.

  3. Press coverage of Symonds is weirdly obsessive and misogynistic.

  4. We have a corrupt government in which ‘jobs for my pals’ is a guiding principle and Symonds, who seems to have ensured her favourites get plum jobs in Downing Street and elsewhere, shares that guilt.

On Times Radio, the continuity wing of The Times comment pages, a guest on the execrable G & T Show with Tom Newton-Dunn (who trafficked neo-Nazi propaganda onto the front page of The Sun and never answered for it) and Gloria De Piero (the former Labour MP), commented blithely:

“[Symonds] was the Conservative Party's head of communications… she’d probably have a big job in government anyway if she wasn’t Boris’ partner…”

That line gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the reporting from the Court of King Boris the First (And Hopefully Last):

It’s fan fiction. It extrapolates from a crumb of reality to generate a fantasy world in which it’s okay and, in fact, vital that a woman who is alleged to have left that Head of Communications role — an £80,000 job — over “expenses irregularities” must be at the heart of government decision-making.

On a day when the bulk of press pressure should have been on Matt Hancock after a court ruled he acted unlawfully with regard to government contracts — the evidence that those deals were done on an industrially corrupt scale is extensive — tales of tear ups in Downing Street, focused on Symonds’ role were nearly as prominent as the takes on Prince William’s latest tantrum about his brother (see yesterday’s newsletter).

It does Boris Johnson all kinds of favours to have his girlfriend, his baby, and his dog reported on the way other parts of the press over E-List celebrities. When he is treated like King Boris, bumbling his way around the palace, screaming at his dog for urinating on sycophants and chewing expensive old books, he’s a cartoon. Cartoonish is Johnson’s comfort zone and allows him to duck the kind of serious scrutiny he really fears. A demented dog and a domineering partner? Well, that just makes him relatable, right?

The political correspondents should be ashamed of themselves, but then having learned from the people they report on that ‘shame’ has no practical use, they are now physically incapable of experiencing it. When Dilyn the dog pisses all over the papers, it’s just a side-effect of house training; when lobby correspondents do it, they call it ‘reporting’.

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