While the eyes of the nation are glued to the Conservative Party leadership race - and the job of being Britain’s next prime minister - spare a thought for the candidates’ other halves. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, they will come under scrutiny to a degree that takes some getting used to. None more so perhaps than Carrie Symonds, the girlfriend of frontrunner Boris Johnson, and the youngest of all of the partners.
As a former director of communications for the Conservatives, 31-year-old Symonds will be more accustomed to playing a behind-the-scenes role. She worked as a press officer to Samantha Cameron, and has recently been credited with slimming down her 54-year-old boyfriend and smartening up his appearance.
But having kept a fairly low profile herself, she stepped into the limelight this week at the launch of Johnson’s campaign, looking polished in a calf-length Karen Millen dress - a choice which was immediately remarked upon, as indeed will be everything she wears for the foreseeable.
Yet, despite her youth and the fact her relationship with Johnson is not as long-standing as the other contenders’ with their partners, Symonds is arguably well-equipped to navigate the unofficial role of “first lady”. She understands how the media works and the all-important power of an image. She’ll have grasped that it doesn’t do to be too opinionated, nor be seen as too political. You must appear supportive and interested; committed to your partner’s cause. It’s a balancing act, and one I observed at close quarters while an aide to Samantha Cameron.
It began in January 2010. I’d just left the role of PR director for Anya Hindmarch and was looking for another job in fashion. One day an unknown number flashed up on my phone. It was Samantha, asking if I had any spare time to help her with the forthcoming general election. We knew each other vaguely, but not well, and the world of politics was new and daunting to me. Yet I accepted with a tentative yes and was appointed her personal special adviser within her husband David’s team. I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I soon discovered just how fast and how furious life in the 24/7 news cycle can be. It’s intoxicating, too; I had never experienced such a strong sense of teamwork. All of us were striving for the same goal, supporting the same person - or, in my case, his wife. Who at the time happened to be secretly pregnant with her fourth child and feeling pretty awful, while holding down a full time job and expected to be in a million places at once.
Symonds and her fellow “other halves” in the 2019 race are already becoming familiar with the demands of their unpaid position as political support act. Lucia Hunt played a central role in her husband Jeremy’s launch speech earlier this week, looking remarkably comfortable and chic. Sajid Javid kick-started his campaign with a homely video that included his wife, Laura, and their children.
It’s harder than it looks. We learned a lot during the 2010 campaign: from which colours work best in photographs to how to juggle Sam’s diary to allow her to get on with her life. Shoes were forgotten (her fault) and we missed a flight (my fault) but, mostly, we muddled through. We even thought we’d got away with an ill-timed wardrobe malfunction, when the Paul Smith dress Sam was wearing at the 2010 party conference ripped while she was sitting on stage. She covertly texted a request for a shawl, and someone had to crawl along the floor with one, enabling her to cover the tear. No-one need ever have known, were it not for the decision by a member of David’s team to deflect some negative coverage of his speech by announcing to the nation what had happened. Sam had not long since given birth, and no permission had been sought before embarrassing her publicly.
But that, unfortunately, is sometimes the job. By the 2015 campaign, we felt more sure of what we were doing - but that’s not to say it was easy. A leadership campaign is a testing time for a relationship, given the intense pressure and scrutiny both partners are under. Samantha and David’s marriage was, and still is, one of the strongest I have seen, and withstood the constant personal onslaughts. As the current crop of partners will be learning, you must be ready to face whatever comes your way. As Sam said to me, you are doing it because you love your husband and want to support him - not out of personal choice.
It can be a tough ride. Ed Miliband recently admitted he regretted using his wife Justine as a political prop on the 2015 campaign trail, and the anxiety it caused her. Like Sam, she had a full time job and young children, yet was expected to be by the Labour leader’s side at all key moments, dressed appropriately. “I am more than a dress,” she eloquently protested. But the dress, inevitably, mattered.
I remember Sam saying to me at a party conference, just before she had to leave the hotel and face the waiting photographers, “wouldn’t it be great if Miriam [Clegg], Justine and I all made a pact not to go up on stage with our husbands.” With the benefit of hindsight, that might have been a very good idea.
As a female other half, there is a serious expectation you will pay due attention to your clothing and a large amount of my time with Samantha was spent planning her wardrobe. Fabrics needed to be crease-free, as campaigning involves long journeys and multiple visits per day, with no Melania Trump-style outfit changes possible. What we couldn’t ignore was that, like it or not, the clothes Sam wore generated more headlines than what she actually had to say. Accounting for this was frustrating but necessary as the media liked to keep running tabs of what each wife wore and how much it cost.
Michelle Obama turned this to her advantage, using her wardrobe as a force for good. She embraced high street brands such as J Crew, which fell within the reach of many voters, using style to make herself relatable. But the US first lady has more freedom than the partner of a British prime minister. She has entire teams of staff of her own, and is allowed to be political.
So will things change for Britain’s political spouses? I can’t see it happening soon, and it is with some exasperation that I watch these bright and interesting women reduced to a clothes hangers for the sake of their partners’ careers. I wish them all the best of luck. The advice I would give is not to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down. And don’t, please don’t, forget to smile. It makes for a far better picture.