Boris Johnson’s children heal rift with PM after as they finally meet Carrie Symonds

Every so often a leading politician, usually with a late-night drink in hand, will reflect sadly that the price of power has been the loss of a tight-knit family life. For Boris Johnson, who marked his first year in Downing Street this week with little razzmatazz, that sacrifice has been more nuanced and infinitely more poignant.

All the triumphs, the highs and lows of the most extraordinary inaugural 12 months of any prime ministerial career of modern times, must be set against the effect it has had on close domestic ties. For all the bonhomie, witty one-liners and wisecracking, Boris is essentially a loner with few close friends. To him it is all politics and family.

So the hardest part of all the tribulations to befall him was the rift that opened up with four of his children in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother Marina and their deep upset when they learned her replacement, Carrie Symonds, was expecting their father’s baby.

It means that when historians come to reflect on the Boris premiership and the upheavals of this first calendar year, they might easily overlook the significance of the most affecting and least publicised event of all — the rapprochement between the Prime Minister and his children.

For all the bonhomie, witty one-liners and wisecracking, Boris is essentially a loner with few close friends. To him it is all politics and family

Differences have been set aside and we understand all four of Boris’s children with Marina have met Carrie and their 12-week-old half-brother Wilfred. The encounters have been at Chequers, the PM’s weekend retreat in the Chiltern Hills where, slowly as social distancing measures have been relaxed, the couple have begun entertaining ministerial colleagues, advisers, friends and, yes, family.

Most prime ministers discover that high office comes with a narrowing of their social circle. Who’s in and who’s out is always a subject of abiding fascination but ultimately it relies on one thing: trust.

‘When you become Prime Minister you make new relationships, but you don’t make new friends,’ says one of Boris’s Oxford contemporaries.

‘And your circle tends to become smaller and smaller because you have to be so sure about who is trustworthy and who isn’t. So the friends invited to Chequers have predominantly been drawn from Carrie’s circle. Boris is happy with that.’

But he is even happier that his relationship with Lara, Milo, Cassie and Theodore — from his 26-year marriage to barrister Marina Wheeler — has been hugely repaired.

How often they have visited, when and for how long, no one at No 10 will say.

Differences have been set aside and we understand all four of Boris’s children with Marina have met Carrie and their 12-week-old half-brother Wilfred. Pictured: Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds speaking with the midwifes on zoom that helped deliver their son

Differences have been set aside and we understand all four of Boris’s children with Marina have met Carrie and their 12-week-old half-brother Wilfred. Pictured: Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds speaking with the midwifes on zoom that helped deliver their son

‘No one goes near his domestic stresses and strains,’ says a source, ‘but reports that the children are refusing to speak to their father or meet Carrie are not right.’

Those that do remain in the magic circle and make it on to the Chequers guest list will find Boris has taken up tennis again — he was unable to play for weeks during his long recovery from Covid-19. ‘His first serve is good but the second is a bit like a girl’s,’ says one recent partner.

He is also swimming in the heated indoor pool. He is not yet ready to take up spontaneous pursuits such as wild-water swimming, which he did while Foreign Secretary and had the use of Chevening in Kent where there is a lake in the grounds. ‘He was gung-ho about plunging in,’ recalls one guest who joined him for a dip. ‘That was Boris 2018, a carefree Boris. The 2020 Boris is a very different person.’

But how could it not be? In just 12 months he has won the Conservative Party leadership, prorogued Parliament — and been condemned by the Supreme Court for doing so — kicked out 21 Tory MPs who defied him, secured a Brexit breakthrough, achieved a thumping general election victory, finalised a divorce, got engaged — though still not married — and become a father again.

He has also, let’s not forget, suffered a near-fatal dose of the coronavirus which at one stage saw his chances of survival no higher than 50:50.

He has also, let’s not forget, suffered a near-fatal dose of the coronavirus which at one stage saw his chances of survival no higher than 50:50

He has also, let’s not forget, suffered a near-fatal dose of the coronavirus which at one stage saw his chances of survival no higher than 50:50

No incoming peacetime Prime Minister has faced such challenges where at any moment one piece of the jigsaw could have seen the whole Johnson project crumbling before he could get his feet comfortably beneath the Cabinet table.

At one key point he told several of his advisers: ‘I write books about history and am conscious that I could go down in history as the shortest-serving Prime Minister of modern times.’

He might have been talking about that moment when he was admitted to intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital in April when his reaction to Covid had become so serious he was within a whisker of being put on a ventilator, where the odds on pulling through would have fallen to just one in three.

It might also have been the days before the election last December when Tory internal polling showed Labour closing to within a handful of percentage points and with it the prospect of his great gamble being lost.

In fact his observation was about the decision to remove the whip from those 21 MPs, including two former chancellors, Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke, as well as a former Tory chairman Caroline Spelman.

The issue, of course, was Brexit, and the logjam he inherited from Theresa May. The high-risk move to expel them provoked the resignation of one Cabinet minister, Amber Rudd, and might have triggered more.

At one key point he told several of his advisers: ‘I write books about history and am conscious that I could go down in history as the shortest-serving Prime Minister of modern times.’

At one key point he told several of his advisers: ‘I write books about history and am conscious that I could go down in history as the shortest-serving Prime Minister of modern times.’

Boris, who had taken the decision along with chief whip Mark Spencer and Lee Cain, the PM’s influential head of communications, held his nerve.

‘It was the right thing to do,’ he told those advisers.

As a senior figure told us: ‘It was very risky and I gulped when I heard he was doing it, but Boris had made the calculations.

‘He was determined to show the public that the only way Brexit was going to happen was if his authority was paramount. Those MPs who were sacked had held Mrs May to ransom for years.

‘He was aware it could go wrong and it would have been all over for him, but fortune favours the brave. By taking the action that he did, he demonstrated how determined he was.’

And how ruthless. Both are qualities some of his supporters would like to see more of. There have been flashes of steeliness — detractors would call it stubbornness — in his determination not to yield to popular campaigns.

His refusal to travel to the North of England after the January floods, along with steadfast support for under-fire ministers — Home Secretary Priti Patel over claims of bullying and Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, for allegedly helping a Tory donor avoid a tax bill — have been significant.

But it was the uncompromising defence of Dominic Cummings, the most senior No 10 aide, who was revealed to have broken lockdown rules, that signalled a new degree of icy pragmatism.

‘It shows he is not going to be pushed around by negative headlines even if they provoke damaging poll numbers,’ says one source.

So far the strategy seems to be working. Rather than being buffeted by events as predecessors such as Mrs May, Gordon Brown and John Major were, Mr Johnson is sticking to his purpose.

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is a short time in government. It would have been pointless to pass judgment on Mrs Thatcher a year into her government in May 1980. Equally, Labour under Tony Blair was barely tested in its first 12 months after winning the 1997 election when, in many respects, its policies were almost indistinguishable from the previous Tory government.

Boris Johnson has had to confront the most far-reaching crisis Britain has faced since the end of World War II while battling an illness that could have killed him.

It is the response to Covid-19 that will inform the success or otherwise of his administration.

Rather than being buffeted by events as predecessors such as Mrs May, Gordon Brown and John Major were, Mr Johnson is sticking to his purpose

Rather than being buffeted by events as predecessors such as Mrs May, Gordon Brown and John Major were, Mr Johnson is sticking to his purpose

When he was admitted to hospital on April 5, he was overweight, tipping the scales at 17 st 7lb, far too heavy for someone only 5ft 10in tall. Since his recovery he has made weight loss a personal priority, losing a stone and a half and telling friends ‘there’s more to come’.

‘He is not following a diet,’ we are told, ‘but he is cutting out snacking and eating more healthily with fish, chicken and salads featuring.

‘He’s cut down on alcohol too, having the odd glass of wine with dinner.’

One minister told us: ‘There have been a number of times when I have been waiting outside his office to see him and there was no sign of him. Then he would emerge looking flushed and he would apologise for keeping me waiting. Where had he been? He would sneak upstairs to the Downing Street flat, go to the fridge in the kitchen and cut himself a chunk of cheese. He adores cheese. But that’s all stopped and we have Carrie to thank for that.’

An aide, meanwhile, says how Boris would often point to his expanding girth and say: ‘Working from home means all day you are raiding the fridge.’

‘He is so conscious of his weight because he knows obesity is a major factor in Covid. He works hard to get his weight down but it’s not easy for him.’

Like two other recent prime ministers — Blair (pictured) and Cameron — he is also having to juggle running the country with the demands of fatherhood

Like two other recent prime ministers — Blair (pictured) and Cameron — he is also having to juggle running the country with the demands of fatherhood

Along with the cheese ban there is also a fitness regime. Each morning in the flat above No 11, where he, Carrie and their baby live in the flat David Cameron and his family occupied, the alarm goes off at 5 am. It is the cue for his run.

His favourite locations are the gardens of Buckingham Palace, put at his disposal by the Queen, who voiced concern at his recovery from the virus, and the grounds of Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — a fellow Old Etonian — across the river from Downing Street.

For weeks after his near-death experience in hospital, Boris looked ill and tired with bags under his eyes. He was also often forgetful, a side-effect of the virus reported by other sufferers. But in recent weeks he has looked more like his old self.

‘There’s colour in his cheeks and more of the old energy and enthusiasm is back,’ says a source.

Like two other recent prime ministers — Blair and Cameron — he is also having to juggle running the country with the demands of fatherhood. But at 56 Boris is the oldest new father in Downing Street since Lord John Russell in the mid-19th century.

While Carrie and Wilfred are often there with him, they also retreat to the £1.3 million house in South London the couple bought before he became Tory leader.

This allows Boris an undisturbed night’s sleep. Asked recently if he was changing nappies, he rolled his eyes and said: ‘A lot, as a matter of fact.’

While Carrie (pictured) and Wilfred are often there with him, they also retreat to the £1.3 million house in South London the couple bought before he became Tory leader

While Carrie (pictured) and Wilfred are often there with him, they also retreat to the £1.3 million house in South London the couple bought before he became Tory leader

Most nights he likes to be in bed by 11pm. Mrs Thatcher famously got by on three or four hours’ sleep, Boris likes six. He has shown ‘remarkable discipline’ in dealing with the bureaucracy of the job, we understand.

Where possible he does his official red box of papers between 7 pm and 8 pm in the No 10 study but occasionally takes paperwork upstairs to the flat to complete. The routine is in contrast to David Cameron, who had dinner with his family and would rise early to do the boxes on the kitchen table the following morning.

Boris has already been up for an hour when he gets to his desk at 6 am and starts sending WhatsApp messages to ministers and senior advisers.

‘I hear the phone, my heart sinks, as I catch the time on the alarm clock. It’s normally just after 6 am and you realise the boss is working,’ says one adviser. ‘And he’s expecting a rapid response so it’s time to get up.’

If all this sounds like the familiar machinery of government of a prime minister possessing a massive 80-seat majority, it is curious then that there are complaints at the way Boris is governing.

On coronavirus, he is criticised for not being a details man, along with muddled decision-making over lockdown, care homes and tracing. His detractors complain he is the wrong PM for a crisis and does not convey the impression of assured competence.

Internally, some party figures are concerned he is driven by focus groups and polling companies.

One senior source told us: ‘The team the PM has assembled are in permanent campaign mode.

‘But they are running a country not a six-week referendum or an election campaign. It explains why the PM is primed to use exaggerated phrases. So he talks about a “world-beating” NHS Covid app. It never worked.

‘He said the test-and-trace system would be world-class. It clearly isn’t.

‘You might be able to get away with slick phrases and gimmicks, sound bites, and stunts in a short campaign, but this is a long haul and the Downing Street operation is not strategic, but all about short-term tactics to get through the day or the week. There is a big difference and it shows.’

Outside the Westminster bubble, however, the public don’t see it like that.

‘They want him to succeed,’ one minister told us. ‘He’s been knocked for six, had to deal with the biggest crisis since the war, become a father again and delivered a big election win.

‘It’s all taken a lot out of him but he’s still got that indefatigable spirit. There’s a six-point lead in the polls and the grass-roots approval is overwhelming.

‘Would I have taken that a year ago? I would have snapped your hand off for it.’

With some degree of justification Boris himself is disgruntled that his primary goal throughout the pandemic, to protect the NHS, was a success yet is rarely acknowledged.

And, of course, he did get Brexit done. There will be more tough times ahead getting a deal but all the same that alone is a record, surely, to be proud of.

So how did Boris mark this anniversary? ‘Drinks with staff at No 10, no great celebration,’ says an insider.

Traditionally, gifts for a first anniversary are made of paper. Will Boris have another piece of paper in his hand before many more such landmarks — a marriage certificate?

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