In the British government they speak in hushed, awestruck tones of “badgers”.
Senior civil servants recall their shock at what happened when Boris Johnson, his then-fiancee Carrie Symonds and their baby son Wilfred went on holiday to Scotland in August last year.
While the national headlines were dominated by Covid-19 lockdowns, more than 5,000 immigrants crossing the English Channel and the A-level exam results fiasco, the higher reaches of government were obsessing over badgers.
The animals, much loved in children’s fiction but accused by farmers of spreading tuberculosis in cattle, are one of Carrie’s passions.
While the couple were staying in a Scottish clifftop cottage, Carrie learned that a leaked document was revealing plans to press ahead with badger culls in 10 areas, including Derbyshire.
This was despite Theresa Villiers, then the minister responsible, having previously ordered the scrapping of the Derbyshire cull.
Carrie is vehemently opposed to badger culls and the minister’s decision came three weeks after Carrie was personally briefed in Downing Street by Dominic Dyer, head of the Badger Trust, which campaigns against culling.
The farmers’ union is convinced the Carrie-Dyer meeting was crucial to the government rejecting scientific advice to proceed with the cull. Ms Villiers confirmed that Downing Street had intervened. “Certainly, we engaged with No 10 on the decision on Derbyshire, yes.” The minister insisted she was not given a specific “direction” but admitted a “conversation had taken place” about whether the cull was necessary.
Mr Dyer said he relayed his concerns about the need to stop the “controversial, costly and cruel” badger cull. “I am pleased to see that Carrie made sure this reached [the Prime Minister in] Downing Street,” he said.
However, while the couple were away on holiday, the leak suggested Mr Johnson’s government appeared to be quietly committing a U-turn. Carrie found out and Boris weighed in. The phone from Scotland was red hot as a rethink was ordered. It was duly announced ministers would be phasing out badger culls after all and instead accelerating vaccination and testing programmes of cattle.
If anybody in Whitehall was unsure before about the power of Carrie, here was their proof. “Badgers” is still murmured, like some sort of code, whenever her reach is questioned.
They are just one of the creatures that Carrie cares deeply about – and ministers and officials are learning they must, too. Others include elephants, bears, dogs, cats, whales, sharks, dolphins, squirrels, hedgehogs, monkeys, red kites, swans, penguins, puffins, deer, polar bears, hippos, bulls and rhinos.
To them can be added her favourite causes: reducing pollution in oceans and single-use plastics; cutting down on pesticides; longer sentences for animal cruelty; a crackdown on trophy hunting, ivory poaching and puppy farms; rewilding; microbead bans; more CCTV in abattoirs.
She supports a host of animal welfare organisations, including Animal Aid Unlimited, a street animal rescue in Udaipur, India; March for Elephants and Rhinos; Sri Lanka eco-systems; Ullapool Shark Ambassador; Fashion Activism; and the Aspinall Foundation where she presently works.
The “FLOTUK” or “Princess of Whales”, as she is known by some officials, enjoys huge sway on matters that concern her – more so that she is now newly married and her relationship with the prime minister and her position legally formalised.
With the wedding, Carrie Johnson’s powerful status is assured. Previously, she saw off his aides, his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and press secretary Lee Cain.
Symbolically, the secret marriage ceremony was held at the end of a week that was dominated by Mr Cummings’ criticism of her new husband, over his handling of Covid-19, suitability to lead and the influence of Carrie. As a rejoinder to the former aide’s barbs, the wedding was perfect.
Government insiders have had to absorb a line-up of new phrases, initials, key personnel and policy initiatives. There is “Blue-Green” – Tories like Carrie who support eco-issues.
“FOC” is Friend of Carrie. It is accepted in government circles that the best way of getting something done – a decision over policy or personnel – is to ensure it meets with the approval of an FOC.
Top of the list is Zac Goldsmith, a minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who Carrie helped in his failed bid to become London mayor. In the FOC category are Mr Dyer and fellow conservationist Derek Gow, Mr Goldsmith’s brother Ben and the prime minister’s father Stanley.
Ben Goldsmith has been made a member of the board of the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. As co-founder of the charity Rewilding Britain, Ben believes rewilding (returning the environment to its natural state by bringing back animals that used to live there) delivers “huge benefits”.
After Carrie stopped working at Conservative Party HQ, Ben, who also heads the pressure bodyConservative Environment Network, was one of those she consulted about her future. He introduced her to Bloomberg Philanthropies, set up by ex-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Carrie secured a job with them and they seconded her to Oceana, Bloomberg’s cleaner oceans organisation.
Carrie is a patron of Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (Cawf). It paid tribute to her diligence, saying: “Carrie has worked hard to promote recent Conservatives policies on the ivory ban, CCTV in slaughterhouses, increasing sentences for animal cruelty, banning of microbeads and animal sentience.”
Cawf also thanked her for speaking at the March Against Whaling in January 2019, and against trophy hunting at BirdFair, dubbed the “birdwatchers’ Glastonbury”. There, she condemned people who hunt birds for fun, saying: “Why would anyone want to destroy something so beautiful, then stuff its poor lifeless body to keep as some kind of macabre trophy?”
Presumably, that didn’t go down so well with traditional shire Tories who enjoy shooting pheasant and partridge for fun. Nor did the fact that she shared a platform with Chris Packham, the naturalist and broadcaster and fierce opponent of grouse shooting.
A fellow patron of Carrie at Cawf is Stanley Johnson. For his 80th birthday, Boris and his siblings clubbed together for a licence to allow their father to put beavers in the river of his Exmoor estate. They consulted Mr Gow, the UK’s leading rewilder, whose project has received investment from Ben Goldsmith.
There’s one creature Carrie cares a lot about, of course, and that’s Boris himself. His brush with death from Covid-19 and her understandable wish for him to eat more healthily and lose weight are thought to be behind another dramatic shift in policy, against advertising for another set of initials, HFSS (foods High in Fat, Salt and Sugar). The government appeared to be favouring a more middle-of-the-road approach, until without warning it opted for the strictest option, an all-out prohibition.
Another initiative, Boris’s 10-point, “green revolution” – which brings forward a ban on diesel and petrol cars – also bears her stamp.
The stage is set fair for the crucial UN climate change talks, Cop26, in Glasgow in November. The prime minister is said to be flying there, along with world leaders, on special “green flights” using Sustainable Aviation Fuel, produced from food waste.
Ministers and officials have a lot of studying on environmental matters ahead of them. If they wilt, though, they just need to keep reminding themselves: “badgers”.