OPINION - From Carrie to Liz: women to watch on Planet Boris

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  • Dominic Cummings
    Dominic Cummings
    British political strategist who served as chief adviser to UK prime minister from July 2019 until Nov 2020
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Just think of that photo showing a wine o’clock meeting last May in the Downing Street garden.

The top table is claimed to accommodate two men with the prime supporting roles: Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s mercurial — now renegade — head of strategy, and Martin Reynolds, a Principal Private Secretary. On the next table, another four chaps are (we must assume) engaged in lively conversation about strictly office matters like alternative HS2 routes and how to perfect carbon capture and storage techniques. Of 17 people at the event (excluding the PM ), fully two appear to be female.

But think about where the febrile Johnsonian fortunes go from here and it is women who hold the Damocletian sword, now that Dominic Cummings has retired. The most trenchant example of the “second sex” is Sue Gray, a civil servant with the harmless-sounding title of “second permanent secretary in the Department of Levelling Up”.

Dullness is an effective cover in Gray’s case – she has a tendency to end up where the action is once the men have messed up (a role polished during the messy “Plebgate” saga involving a rude politician and mendacious police in 2012 ). We know too that she can stand up to powerful internal interests, having flatly refused a bid by David Cameron’s team to grant Lex Greensill ,the now-disgraced financier who had wormed his way into Number 10's affections, a better class of honour: “Lex must remain an OBE and while we can put him forward for a CBE it will be outrageous if he gets one.” (Guess what: he did).

Now that that the first choice for investigating those parties last Christmas, the Cabinet Secretary, has declined the role on account of a possible conflict of interest, it falls to Gray to figure out why so many end-of-day meetings in Number 10 - when Covid restrictions precluded social gatherings - ended up looking like a lot more like a Spring cocktail prologue.

If women in the Whitehall bureaucracy were the only Furies threatening Nemesis, the PM could rest easily. But the Cabinet has its own Boadicea on the march: Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, appointed to the job earlier this year after the pratfalls of Dominic Raab.

Truss has just sent out a Christmas card featuring herself in a sombre yet figure-skimming dress. The picture includes a Union Jack and a globe casually positioned, as you do in your year-end greetings, to echo the Armada power portrait of Elizabeth I. In case we missed this example of tanks parked on the PM’s lawn, Truss clambered onto a British army one on a visit to the Baltic States, channelling the Cold War iconography of the late Margaret Thatcher. Truss was promoted to one of the top Cabinet jobs, in part because she brought home some skinny trade deals with some Brexit-brio and, according to a fellow cabinet minister, “because she doesn’t annoy Boris too much”. This assessment now looks premature as Truss jostles for the grassroots-favourite mantle in a leadership race which no longer looks such a distant prospect.

But Boris does have his own female frappe de force in Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary and loyalist, who gave as good as she got in a Whatsapp group of MPs piling in on the PM, reminding her colleagues that it was his election victory which got them their swing seats in the first plane. Dorries was promptly “cancelled” from the group by a fellow Brexiteer, Steve Baker – but she is pretty hard to shut up and the last stand of the Johnson ascendancy is unlike to happen without a fightback by the Dorries army.

This leaves Carrie Johnson, stylish player in Boris’s political touring ensemble, who combines the roles of spouse, muse, adviser and entertaining liability. Behind the scenes Munira Mirza rules somewhere in the perma-chaos as head of the policy unit – an entity which is bemusing in producing not a lot of policy. “It’s the tomb of good ideas”, groans one former ally in City Hall. If, however, the year-end agitation subsides and Johnson makes it to the next election , the ideas intended to win back disillusioned voters will be hatched up in Number 10 by Mirza, together with the Cabinet’s up-leveller Michael Gove. And in all the turmoil, at least the man (sort of) in charge has a new baby daughter to celebrate, with a name (Romy) which somehow evokes the strong-willed matrons of ancient Rome. Unless it is just one more omen that the femocracy is finally catching up with him. Stranger things have happened.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist

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