LONDON — Many longtime observers of Boris Johnson say this British prime minister doesn’t need any help getting into hot water. It’s his natural habitat.
Insiders have called her “Princess Nut Nuts” and “Carrie Antoinette.” They compare her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth — ruthless, ambitious and a little mad. Carrie critics have blamed her for everything from parties that may have violated coronavirus restrictions to preventing her husband from becoming a great leader.
The broadside against the prime minister’s spouse has been the talk of the Westminster bubble. Some have branded the critique unfair, even misogynistic. Blame the wife, seriously? They note that when Boris Johnson is flying high and winning landslide elections, nobody implicates Carrie.
Others say Carrie has played an outsize role in Johnson’s premiership — for better or worse.
The debate over the role of the prime minister’s wife exploded into full public view over the weekend, when Michael Ashcroft — Lord Ashcroft, a Conservative Party peer — published a serialized excerpt of his new book, “First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson,” in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.
Ashcroft claims that Carrie Johnson has influenced her husband’s staffing decisions, his messaging, his decision to go big on fighting climate change — and his stumbles.
In the tabloid, Ashcroft charged, “Carrie is the reason Boris has squandered the chance to become a great Prime Minister.” He wrote that her behavior is preventing Johnson from “leading Britain as effectively as the voters deserve.”
The excerpt was enough to inspire a rare response from Carrie Johnson’s personal spokeswoman, who said in a statement Sunday night that “Yet again Mrs. Johnson has been targeted by a brutal briefing campaign against her by enemies of her husband.”
The spokeswoman called this “just the latest attempt by bitter ex-officials to discredit her. She is a private individual who plays no role in government.”
On Monday, her former boss, Health Secretary Sajid Javid, said the intense focus on Carrie was “very, very different” from other spouses of past prime ministers.
When a broadcaster asked if Carrie were not “a critical player in British politics,” Javid objected.
“She was a special adviser, she was working at campaign headquarters. She is no longer,” the health secretary told the BBC. “She is the spouse of the prime minister, her residency is of course in Downing Street, she’s the mother of two children. I just think the kind of focus that we’re seeing on her now is undignified and unfair.”
What to know about Carrie Johnson? She’s famously in love with animals, hates plastic waste, has a rescue dog named Dilyn, is keen on fighting global warming, and works to save the whales and sea life as an adviser to the environmental group Oceana.
She has been the crosshairs for a long while, really since the couple began dating. One of their early spats, with some spilled red wine, was a scoop for the Guardian newspaper.
As for her role in “Partygate” — a string of parties at the prime minister’s office and residence during pandemic shutdowns, now the subject of a criminal investigation by police — ITV News reported that Carrie organized cake and a “Happy Birthday” singalong for her husband in the Cabinet Room. And the Telegraph reported that she hosted an Abba-themed party to celebrate the departure of top aide Dominic Cummings — a departure said to be partly the result of her interventions.
Cummings, who has since branded his former boss Boris unfit for office, recently wrote on his blog that Carrie Johnson was “a dreadful influence.”
Carrie Johnson also appears among staffers and bottles of wine at what Downing Street has maintained was a work event in the back garden. Police are not investigating that gathering, though the other two involving the prime minister’s wife are on their list.
The scandal has led to the departure of some of Downing Street’s most senior staffers. Carrie critics noted that she is among the few to survive the shake-up.
Critics also blame her, in part, for bad headlines that followed the luxury redecorating — paid for by a rich donor — at the couple’s official residence at 11 Downing Street and for the controversial decision to evacuate abandoned pets from a charity shelter in Kabul run by a former British soldier.
In his excerpt, Ashcroft reported that during Boris Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign for the Conservative Party, it looked like Carrie Johnson had a hold on his phone.
“We’d spot the different ways things were written, because the style would change. We’d learn to spot when it was her writing the message,” a source told Ashcroft.
Boris Johnson was asked Monday whether he takes political advice from his wife — and whether the criticism of her is fair.
The prime minister replied, “I think it’s entirely fair for people to focus on the issues that I’m focused on, and that is, number one, our priority, which is to tackle the covid backlogs and rebuild our economy.”
Others who have come to Carrie Johnson’s defense have called out what they see as sexism.
“The trouble is, it’s always the easiest thing to do to blame the woman and the truth is far more complicated than that,” said columnist Sarah Vine, who is recently divorced from a top government minister and Johnson ally, Michael Gove.
Vine told the BBC, “If Boris Johnson has given Carrie too much access or too much leeway, that’s sort of his fault. He is the person in charge. He is the prime minister.”
She added: “I know that the nickname Carrie Antoinette is witty and a good pun and we all love a good pun, but I just don't think her head deserves to be on the block in this way.”
Sandra Howard, the former spouse of Michael Howard, who once led the Conservative Party, said she had “great sympathy” for Carrie Johnson.
“The focus is unfairly angled at her as a woman, as well,” she told the BBC on Monday. “It’s just better you don’t try and heap blame where it’s unclear.”
Kwasi Kwarteng, the government’s business secretary, said Carrie Johnson has her own opinions but denied “she’s got an undue influence.”
Kwarteng told Times Radio, “The prime minister has been in politics for 25 years, and has a pretty strong set of ideas.”
Paul Goodman, the editor of the ConservativeHome website, which is owned by Ashcroft, wrote on Monday that the idea that the prime minister’s wife stunted Johnson’s premiership is “the consensus view in Westminster,” among Conservative Party ministers, lawmakers and special advisers.
Goodman noted, though, “whether the charge is true or not, it deflects from the main point. Which is that the Prime Minister himself, not his spouse, bears responsibility for his decisions.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.