Many people have, of course, pointed the finger at the prime minister’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, known for her work in the field of marine conservation, now employed by the conservation charity the John Aspinall Foundation.
Gossip about her influence over Boris Johnson and his seemingly new-found passion for green issues goes back to 2019, when environment secretary Theresa Villiers told Natural England to scrap the planned badger cull in Derbyshire.
Symonds had been briefed by Dominic Dyer, until last December the chief executive of the Badger Trust, and – so the story goes – she pleaded with Johnson to intervene.
“I gave her information to give to Boris and he brought it up in Cabinet,” Dyer confirmed to ENDS. “Her intervention was significant because she understood the issue, her views were clear and she was a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF), a group that had worked hard to build a platform against badger culling.”
The NFU later took out a Judicial Review against Villiers’ decision, and the High Court judgment – though it rejected the farmers’ claim – found considerable evidence for Johnson putting pressure on DEFRA ministers to halt culling in Derbyshire.
In fact, Dyer believes it would have been easy to persuade Johnson that stopping the cull was the smart thing to do. The county was in the middle of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ that the Conservatives would target in the looming (though yet to be announced) General Election. “She told him you could be shooting badgers that have been vaccinated, and there’s no public support for that – that’s why he intervened,” Dyer said. “He didn’t want this issue coming up on the doorstep.”
But there’s another view. CAWF founder Lorraine Platt has been working for more than a decade with sympathetic MPs to fundamentally change the party’s approach to all manner of animal welfare issues. “It’s important to remember that patrons have had key influential roles in promoting animal welfare for many years, sometimes decades,” Platt told ENDS. “Sir Roger Gale and Sir David Amess have both been in Parliament for 37 years.”
And, indeed, Platt argues, Johnson wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph in 2018 arguing for an end to live animal exports. “He used his first speech on the steps of Downing Street as prime minister to talk about animal welfare, the first PM to have done that,” she said.
But if the animal welfare and broader environmental issues are really genuine passions for Johnson, then he appears to have a mixed record in advocating them. True, he’s written pieces about elephants and pangolins, but go back a decade or more and you can find articles questioning the science of climate change and rejecting recommendations from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“If they seriously believe that I am going to give up eating meat – in the hope of reducing the temperature of the planet – then they must be totally barmy,” he wrote. Does this suggest that his embrace of green issues is superficial or that it has come later, raising once again the influence of his new partner?
CAWF patron Sir David Amess suggested to ENDS that giving Symonds all the credit for the government’s commitment to animal welfare would be to ignore the work of many other people.
“I can’t pretend to know the lady, I’ve met her once at the Conservative Party conference,” he said, “but I’ve got no evidence for her influence over these issues. I know that [environment secretary] George Eustice and [environment minister] Zac Goldsmith were talking positively about these things way before she came on the scene.” Dyer also acknowledges the considerable influence of Goldsmith in Number 10.
So, Johnson’s new-found commitment to animal welfare could be down to Symonds, but it could also – or equally – be down to the fact that the Conservative Party, and the people who vote for it, have changed. Changing tack makes political sense.
And the third possibility? That it is intended to distract from other other measures, such as the proposed reforms to the planning system, that will have adverse impacts on the environment. Throw the blue-green voters a bone so they look away from potentially less palatable actions elsewhere, could be the thinking.
Dyer agrees there are contradictions within the Conservative agenda, whether it’s HS2 or airport expansions. “These are big issues and there are vested interests that will push back the other way,” he said.
Symonds, in other words, may have influence, but so do plenty of other people.