Newly wed and with her new married name, Carrie Johnson takes on her first challenge as Britain’s first lady when she hosts the partners of world leaders at next week’s G7 summit.
But her political nous, honed over years at Conservative campaign HQ, should ably equip her for the delicate diplomatic task of keeping the plus-ones attending the Carbis Bay summit in Cornwall entertained and occupied during the three-day meeting of leaders of the largest democratic economies.
Past G7 and G20 summits invariably show the political spouses at play, visiting art galleries, sampling delicious wines, dining at showcase restaurants and suchlike. The message seems to be that the weighty business of solving the world’s problems is conducted by their predominantly male partners locked in roundtable discussions, while the wives’ role is to “bolster” relationships.
Photographs and accompanying articles traditionally dissect the outfits that the women – and it is mainly women – are wearing, and their ratings in the glamour stakes. This, despite the fact they are themselves largely powerful and accomplished people in their own right.
This approach by the media inevitably attracts criticism. Former diplomat Tom Fletcher, who was an adviser to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, stressed: “It was sometimes necessary to spend more time briefing the spouse than the PM, as the spouse was so often sat next to the key leader (and would often get more out of them).”
He added: “I think we – the public, media, diplomats – place very unfair expectations on spouses. On the one hand they are expected to drop whatever they’re doing to be a plus one. And then, whether they are male or female, but the media are worse with female partners, their clothes/programme/hair/politics are picked over for signs of mistakes or gaffes.”
“Other leaders and their partners found the UK media particularly bad at this,” he added.
It is an approach certainly not helped by Donald Tusk, who when European Council president, captioned an Instagram video of four wives: Melania Trump, Brigitte Macron, Malgorzata Tusk and Akie Abe, at the 2019 G7 in Biarritz, France with the words: “The light side of the Force”.
No wonder that Philip May felt out of place as he squired wife Theresa May around such gatherings. He did his best. One memorable photograph shows him – the sole male in a group shot at the 2019 G20 in Japan – waving with some enthusiasm. But he is said to have found the whole ordeal “excruciating”, according to one source.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, quantum chemist Prof Joachim Sauer, 68, who has been described as “notoriously earnest” and is little seen at international summits, once laid on a lecture on nanotechronology in Bavaria for G7 spouses. Only Akie Abe, the then Japanese prime minister’s wife, reportedly turned up. He may be relieved this will be Merkel’s last G7, as she is not seeking re-election.
So the pressure will be on Carrie. Devising a programme in a pandemic is one challenge, where air-kissing will be replaced by fist pumps and elbow bumps and masks may be the main fashion statement of the day.
Alas, this will deprive the photographers of much fun. One of the money shots at the G7 in 2019 was of a seemingly smitten Melania Trump greeting Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, while a grumpy-looking Trump looked on. This being Cornwall, there is speculation Carrie will devise a programme around a Poldark theme.
While she won’t be the only G7 novice – US first lady, Jill Biden, Japanese prime minister’s wife, Mariko Suga, and Serena Cappello, the wife of Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, are also new on the scene – all eyes will be on her.
Comparisons with her predecessors will undoubtedly be made. Can she be as effective as, say, Sarah Brown, who has been described as a “brilliant operator”? Brown was oft-praised for her clear sense of what was most useful, and her ability to give officials comprehensive and savvy briefings afterwards.
Over to the new Mrs Johnson.