The second couple

The second couple

After Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds’ wedding, there are now two powerful married couples in Number 10. Meet the other: Munira and Dougie


Transcript

How sure are you that you know the people who really run Britain? The people with true influence and authority? The power brokers that actually decide what gets done and what doesn’t; who’s up and who’s down? Do you think you can name them? 

I’m going to tell you a story about two of the most important individuals in British politics today. Two people I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of.

I’m Matt d’Ancona and I’ve been looking into a married couple at the very apex of government – a genuinely powerful husband and wife, with considerable influence over the future of the country – whose names, unless you’re a political obsessive, will almost certainly mean nothing to you.

In 2020, when Boris Johnson was asked by Grazia magazine to name the five most influential women in his career, one was Boadicea. One was his grandmother. 

And another was Munira Mirza, now head of the Downing Street policy unit.

Her husband is Douglas Smith – or “Dougie” as he is universally known – whose job is… well, we’ll get to that later.

Quietly, but with absolute focus, they have become an extraordinarily powerful force – almost a single person. “Dougira”, as one Cabinet Minister puts it. 

And their story is, in many ways, an unexpected, circuitous and surprising one, in which a personal relationship has converged with a moment of historic opportunity in a way that few could have foreseen.

Munira Mirza began her political journey on the far Left, in the milieu of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Douglas Smith started as a firebrand of the hard libertarian Right in the now defunct Federation of Conservative Students.

Yet Brexit and the patronage of Boris Johnson have brought them together to Number Ten and positions of great authority. 

And their shared interests in culture wars – the battles over identity, heritage and who runs culture-defining institutions – means that they are set to be even more influential in the PM’s plans for political strategy after the pandemic.

It’s a case study in the morphing landscape of networked, digitised, populist politics, and the speed with which, in the 2020s, individuals who would previously have been seen as intriguing outliers or fringe figures can end up at the very heart of power.

A great Westminster power couple? Yes and no. As you’ll see from their story, these are two people with little interest in bright lights and fancy parties. 

The power they seek and have obtained is altogether more significant and far-reaching – and the story of their marriage is a parable of how that power works in our era.

To reduce it to the most basic level: Dougie handles the form, and Munira takes care of the content. 

He is the most powerful figure in today’s Conservative Party when it comes to drawing up lists of parliamentary candidates and, increasingly, vetting public appointments. 

She, meanwhile, is drawing up a policy grid for Boris Johnson’s premiership after Covid, especially on the increasingly heated battlefront of culture and identity.

As one of their Downing Street colleagues put it to me: “You don’t see them huddling in the corridors that much. They know each other’s minds and intentions completely. And – though they’re both polite – you cross them at your peril.”

I’ve spoken to more than 20 ministers, Downing Street officials, Conservative activists and others who know the couple. On this much all are agreed: they have a strong marriage; they are both clever and experienced; they retain the world-view of outsiders; and they hate publicity with a passion.

This absolute shunning of the limelight wasn’t always the rule – at least for Munira Mirza. Here she is in October 2017, attacking Theresa May’s Race Disparity Audit:

“There is discrimination, and there is racism in this country. But I don’t think it helps anyone to exaggerate the degree of racism or the degree of discrimination. And some of the disparities they’re picking out, I think, can be explained by many other factors which affect all groups – not just ethnic groups.”

Munira Mirza, BBC interview, October 2017

When she became Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May had named racial inequality as one of the “burning injustices” that needed to be addressed as a matter of national urgency.

“It means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from. That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”

Statement by Theresa May, July 2016

Munira Mirza has never denied the reality of racism, and has experienced it herself. But, with a background in the arts, and as Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, she had come to believe that a “grievance industry” was arising around ethnic identity that would compound the very problems it claimed it would solve.

Here she is in an interview with the Triggernometry podcast in December 2018:

“But I think the idea that our differences define us, that they should be the things that determine policy, that we should treat people differently because of those cultural differences… I think that can lead us into all sorts of dead ends. And it can be quite divisive. It ends up, I think, making something which is a fact of society – that we are different – it makes it much more rigid. It makes it difficult for people to transcend those identities.”

Munira Mirza, Triggernometry podcast, December 2018

She had grown sceptical of the idea of institutional racism – the notion that bigotry is entrenched in systems, structures and unconscious bias rather than just malicious individuals. 

And she was frustrated by the repeated mentions of white privilege. 

“I mean… it’s such an ahistoric term. It doesn’t mean anything, really, anymore.”

Munira Mirza, Triggernometry podcast, December 2018 

Crucial to her argument, then as now, was the proposal that those advancing the claims of identity politics and the so-called “critical race theory” that underpins it were really seeking control over others. 

“That’s the thing that has always aggravated me about anti-racism. Essentially, it’s telling people: no, your instincts, your general instinct to treat everyone the same… there’s something wrong with that. And you have to think carefully before you speak. It’s a form of policing.”

Munira Mirza, Triggernometry podcast, December 2018 

In other words: the whole thing was about power

Let’s scroll back to Munira Mirza’s upbringing. She was born in May 1978 of British-Pakistani parents, both immigrants to this country, in the northern town of Oldham in Greater Manchester. Her mother was a part-time Urdu teacher, her father a factory worker.

Growing up, she confronted racism in the working-class town – but also recalls acts of kindness by her late father’s white colleagues.

“A lot of his colleagues were white working class Oldhamers. And every year, one of them, called Tom, would ring up on Christmas Day and wish him, and wish the family, a happy Christmas. And he knew we were a Muslim family but he rang up because it was the nice thing to do – he wanted to make an effort. And even when my dad passed away he would ring up in the years that followed, just to say that. The way that I interpreted it was that it was a very kind gesture and he wanted my dad to feel welcome. We were an Asian family in Oldham. To me, it felt like a kind thing to do. A very human thing to do.”

Munira Mirza, Triggernometry podcast, December 2018 

She excelled academically at her local comprehensive and won a place to read English at Oxford, where she gained a First Class degree. She followed this up with an MA and a PhD in sociology at the University of Kent.

Kent matters because going there brought her into contact with a new mentor, Professor Frank Furedi, a specialist in the study of risk, social anxiety and the dynamics of populism. 

He was also the founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyite splinter group that broke off from the Revolutionary Communist Group in 1978.

By the time Munira Mirza met Frank Furedi, the RCP was already withering on the vine and, like all far Left movements, was still coping with the hammer blow of the end of the Cold War and the discrediting of revolutionary communism.

Many of the figures associated with the party – a “groupuscule” might be a more accurate name for it – were attracted by libertarianism and opposition to the authoritarianism that they believed was becoming dominant in the modernising Labour Party.

Munira Mirza, who still describes herself as a liberal, was drawn to what she saw as a free-thinking milieu, expressed in the pages of its controversial magazine, Living Marxism.  

Not surprisingly, the RCP is resented to this day for its support for the 1993 IRA bombings in Warrington and its outrageous claims that Western media had deliberately exaggerated genocidal crimes by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. 

All the same: from its ranks came a surprising number of figures who went on to be influential in different ways. Claire Fox, who was elected as an MEP for the Brexit Party, and now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Fox of Buckley…

“I, Claire, Baroness Fox of Buckley, do swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful, and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth…” 

Claire Fox is sworn into the House of Lords, October 2020

Mick Hume was a Times columnist for ten years and was founder editor of the provocative libertarian magazine Spiked – that is now edited by his fellow former RCP comrade, Brendan O’Neill, who is rarely off our screens as contrarian television commentator.

There is no suggestion that Munira Mirza ever shared the RCP’s more shocking positions on the IRA or Serb atrocities. But she was undoubtedly interested in, and influenced by, its strong defence of personal liberties and of free speech, and by its hostility to the inertia and vested interests in institutions.

After a spell working at the Royal Society of Arts in London, she went to work as the Development Director of the modernising Conservative think tank, Policy Exchange – founded in 2002 after Michael Portillo’s failed bid to win the leadership of the Tory Party and his campaign to steer it in a socially liberal direction.

This was a very different time in the culture of Conservative politics. The party was, as ever, divided over Europe, but the idea of what was not yet called Brexit was under discussion only at the fringes of the party. 

The energy in the party lay with those who were arguing for Conservatives to become more socially liberal, more open to the spirit of live-and-let-live, more in tune with modern Britain. 

Remember: this was many years before what is now rather lazily called “wokeness”. The party was simply being urged by groups like Policy Exchange to loosen up and embrace the pluralism and social complexity of the 21st Century country it aspired to govern.

In the same building in Storeys Gate opposite Parliament, was another organisation that was closely connected to Policy Exchange in political objectives, ethos and personnel, named C-Change. 

Formed in 2002 by the head of Portillo’s leadership campaign and future party chair, Francis Maude, C-Change was a campaigning body, rather than a think tank, set up to advance the cause of modernisation in the Tory movement and at its grass-roots. 

In charge was Douglas Smith, then a forty-something Tory activist and campaigner. According to one of their colleagues at the time: “In as much as sparks can ever fly at a Tory think tank, they did. Dougie and Munira became a couple and it was clear that it was the real deal – a proper love match.”

Marriage and a son followed. But who was the suitor that had captured Munira Mirza’s heart?

Dougie Smith is something of a legend in Tory circles. He keeps away from the cameras and the microphones, and prefers to operate in the shadow of political life. 

Even his age, ridiculously, is a bit of a mystery. The best one of his closest friends could offer was 57 or 58. 

He is known to some in the party as “Mr Wolf” – a reference to the all-purpose fixer played by Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – the guy the gangsters call up to sort out an unsortable problem.

As it happens, I got to know Dougie quite well in the nineties when I was writing about Northern Ireland and the Unionist opposition to the concessions that John Major was feared to be promising to the IRA. 

A graduate of St Andrews, he invariably wore an aran sweater and jeans rather than the pinstripe suits then favoured by young fogey Tories. He was a self-described “outsider” who said that there was no intrinsic reason why the leader of the Conservative Party shouldn’t have the pink hair of a punk.

Sticking with colours, he was also deeply devoted to the Orangemen of Northern Ireland and the Unionist cause – which he thought was in deep peril.

[CLIP: Orange order marching to ‘The Sash’]

I knew that he had been a senior figure in the Federation of Conservative Students – a member of its libertarian Right faction and a serious operator. 

The FCS, it should never be forgotten, were so right wing and out of control that Norman Tebbit – scarcely a woolly liberal – considered them way beyond the pale and orchestrated their abolition.

I knew that Dougie had done work for David Hart, the maverick property tycoon who had, years before, advised Margaret Thatcher during the Miners’ Strike, helping to sabotage National Union of Mineworkers picket lines. 

I also knew that he had once spent a night in the cells after an altercation with a rival FCS figure (a legend that was sometimes elevated, quite falsely, to a conviction for arson). 

But such legends were of a piece with the image he cultivated. He was known around political London as a bruiser and a force to be reckoned with.

As I was researching this story, one former minister told me: “I never crossed him – I didn’t fancy getting a Glasgow kiss”.

I have to say that the most menacing thing Dougie ever said to me was that I couldn’t be totally trusted because I had started my journalistic career at the progressive human rights magazine, Index on Censorship – which he suspected of having, as he put it, “ideologically unsound affiliations”.

Having worked with David Hart, it was natural enough for him to work for another highly political plutocrat, Sir James Goldsmith, who had set up the Referendum Party in 1994 – with what was then regarded as the eccentric idea of holding a public vote to decide whether British should remain a member of the European Union.

[Clip: David Mellor concedes defeat as James Goldsmith and others shout “out, out” in the background]

That’s James Goldsmith on the night of the 1997 general election, joyfully celebrating his part, as the Referendum Party’s candidate in Putney, in ousting the former Tory Cabinet member, David Mellor, from the seat Mellor had held for 18 years.

It was pure mischief-making. The formerly-Consevative seat was captured by New Labour – which was the story of the whole night on which Tony Blair won his first landslide.

But isn’t all this ancient history? Not exactly. Dougie and his patron James Goldsmith were exotic, occasionally menacing figures on the political scene, always good to talk to and gossip with. But I was never quite sure how seriously to take it all.

And – I’ll be the first to admit – I would never have guessed in a million years that Goldsmith’s vision of a referendum to leave the EU would come to pass, that the electorate would vote to leave, and that Dougie Smith would, in due course, become one of the most powerful figures in the post-Brexit Conservative regime. 

“Well at 20 minutes to 5 we can now say the decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the common market has been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU.”

David Dimbleby, BBC, June 2016

That’s the BBC’s David Dimbleby early on June 24, 2016, announcing the victory of Vote Leave.

A few hours later, David Cameron announced his decision to resign as Prime Minister.

“But the British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path. And as such I think the country needs a different leadership to take it in this direction. I will do everything I can as PM to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

David Cameron, June 2016

And soon enough, Theresa May took over. Where was Dougie Smith? “In a cupboard at party HQ,” says one of May’s advisers. “We could never quite get rid of him. He wasn’t central under Theresa. But he was never quite out, either.”

One senior minister describes him as “a sort of tough guy version of Woody Allen’s Zelig – for some reason you can never quite fathom, he is always there, always around.”

This is an important strand of our story: the value of stamina, and the rewards that come to those who wait.

As one Cabinet Minister puts it: “Dougie’s trick has been to make himself indispensable. He’ll put up with the occasional demotion because he knows the party needs him.”

It is always tempting to overestimate the importance of ideology in a political career and to under-estimate the necessity of sheer bloody-minded persistence.

Why has Dougie Smith survived as a speech-writer under David Cameron, a party HQ activist under Theresa May and now a much more powerful figure under Boris Johnson?

His career has endured setbacks and changes in leadership that would have finished off a less stubborn and assiduous political figure.

In fact, most thought his career was over before it had really begun…

“Yeah the kind of things you need to be talking about, before you go, with your partner before you go is well, you know, do you want to go all the way? Sometimes the man isn’t happy to share his wife, for example…”

Louise from Pure Pleasure Parties, speaking to Channel 4 for ‘How to prepare for a sex party’

In June 2003, in the first months of his work at the campaign group C-Change, Dougie went to see his boss Francis Maude.

Maude noted that he was unusually apprehensive.

“What would you say if I told you I was gay, Francis?” he asked.

“I’d be surprised,” replied Maude. “But I wouldn’t mind at all.”

“Right,” said Dougie. “Well, I hope you don’t mind now when I tell you that I’m a swinger. I’m into swinging.”

In fact, he wasn’t just into swinging. He was one of the organisers of Fever, a sex party business that hosted lavish orgies at plush central London homes for carefully-selected under-40 couples and single women.

As always, Dougie Smith was vetting people and drawing up lists – though, in this case, for once, the party whose interests he was serving was not the Conservative variety.

Francis Maude was amused rather than angry – though he had to handle the concerns of a few Quaker trustees at the Joseph Rowntree Trust, which had just agreed to help fund C-Change. 

His task was not made easier by the fact that the Sunday Times had got hold of the story and ran it across the top of its front page under the headline: “Top Tory aide is king of the urban swingers.”

Yet, defying the laws of political gravity, Dougie Smith was not finished off by this disclosure. 

Why? Researching this story, a few people suggested that he has “dirt” on lots of big Tory beasts. And it is certainly true that at least one serving Cabinet Minister went along to one of Dougie’s parties before becoming a politician. 

Though to be fair, it is also true that this person made a very swift exit when they realised what kind of party it was.

But most of the people I talked to dismissed this theory of Dougie Smith as the untouchable key-holder to all the Tory skeleton cupboards. It misses the point, they said, and it exaggerates the salacious contents of his little black book. 

Instead, he got through the crisis of the Fever story for two reasons. The first, and most important, was that he wasn’t remotely ashamed. Just as Munira Mirza had enjoyed the free thinking intellectual culture of the Revolutionary Communist Party gang, so Dougie Smith relished the sexual freedom of the Fever world. In their very different ways, they shared a belief that you shouldn’t be told what to do – by puritans, by the politically correct, by any self-appointed moral police.

Second, Dougie survived the sex party storm by simply not giving up and specifically by making himself useful to the group of ambitious modernisers led by David Cameron, writing speeches, helping develop what would become a successful leadership campaign in 2005.

“He was never absolutely central in those days,” recalls one Cameroon who went on to become a senior member of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. “But he was never absent either. It’s a rare talent.”

He came into his own during the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, in which MPs were reported to have charged the taxpayer for – among other things – moat cleaning, a floating duck house, and “swimming pool maintenance”.

“Well now back to our main report tonight, the leak of ministers’ expenses. Heather Brooke, the campaigner who won the High Court battle to release expenses, and Sir Stuart Bell, the Labour MP for Middlesborough, are here in the studio.
Stuart Bell, just as you’re here, before we get onto the question of what was revealed… Do you think you should do one thing that no MP has had the courage to do today, and just simply apologise for the morass?”

Channel 4 News, 2009

David Cameron’s view was that this was a matter of public ethics and trust rather than the precise letter of the parliamentary rules – which were, as it turned out, amazingly flexible. 

So someone had to deal with each case and tell those Conservative MPs who were filling the news pages what was acceptable, what wasn’t – and to twist arms sufficiently to make sure the money was repaid.

A tricky job. Who you gonna call? Dougie the Ghostbuster, of course. Or – in this case – the Sleazebuster.

With painstaking care and just the right level of silken menace, Dougie Smith did the rounds of the MPs in question, explaining to them, case by case, exactly what had to be done to clear the air. 

According to a senior member of Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet at the time: “Nobody else could have carried it off. Nobody else had all the information in his head, the reputation, the right mixture of charm and scariness.”

This is the heart of the matter. Today, if you ask even the most senior members of Boris Johnson’s government exactly what Dougie Smith does or even what his job title is, they don’t know – beyond the fact that he liaises at the highest level between party HQ and Number Ten. 

What they do grasp is how useful he is. If a member of the public is going to appear in a party political broadcast, and needs to be checked out, Dougie gets in a car and checks him out.

If a candidate for a public position needs to be quietly vetted, he is the point man. If someone’s CV has suspicious gaps, he hits the phone, scours social media going back years, and does the due diligence – thoroughly.

Above all, if you want a seat – if you have ambitions to pursue a career in Conservative parliamentary politics – you have to get on the right side of Dougie Smith.

As a senior member of the party machine puts it: “Look, if Dougie has a role model it’s probably Lyndon Johnson who said that the first rule of politics is to learn how to count. I mean, he knows who to call, who to visit, who to pressure, how to secure the necessary local votes.”

For almost two decades, he has acquired an unparalleled knowledge of who runs Tory constituency associations. Not just the chairmen, but the vice-chairmen. The councillors and the parish weather makers who can make or break a candidate’s chances in a winnable seat.

Which brings us to his greatest triumph to date

“Good evening and welcome to the 6 o’clock news from Downing Street, where Boris Johnson has promised to repay the trust of voters after leading the Conservatives to an extraordinary election victory.”

BBC News, Dec 2019

An 80-seat majority, the first really solid Tory victory since 1987, and Labour’s worst result since 1935. Not a bad night’s work.

As one very senior source puts it: “Dominic Cummings likes people to think that he was the person who won the 2019 general election but that’s bollocks. Other than Boris, there were two people who really mattered. One was Isaac Levido, who ran strategy. He’s gone now. And the other was Dougie.”

It was essential to Boris Johnson that he get himself a new House of Commons as soon as possible, one completely unlike the 2017-19 cohort that had finished off Theresa May in the Brexit wars.

He needed a majority of biddable MPs, and Dougie Smith was the man to fix it.  While Munira Mirza was closely involved with drawing up the election manifesto, her husband was busily trying to turn the divided Conservative parliamentary party into the united Boris Party.

In Wantage, David Johnston – a comprehensive-educated Brexiteer and champion of social mobility– was installed as successor MP to the arch-Remainer Ed Vaizey, who is now in the Lords.

The seat of Devizes in Wiltshire was sorted for Danny Kruger, the prime minister’s political secretary, fellow Etonian and Vote Leave comrade.

As for Andrew Griffith, the PM’s chief business adviser whose London townhouse was  used as Johnson’s leadership campaign headquarters – he slotted in nicely to the constituency of Arundel and South Downs.

As I heard time and again: “It sure does help to have him on your side.” Conversely, if he blacklisted you – well, forget about that career as a Tory MP and future minister.

And sometimes the candidates don’t even know that they’re being helped. That’s how discreet all these operations are. 

Dougie Smith doesn’t care whether the media knows that he’s fixed things for Boris Johnson. He cares that Boris Johnson knows.

So there, in early 2020, was Prime Minister Johnson, on top of the world, with Brexit finally done, planning to build on his conquest of Labour’s “Red Wall” with a huge programme of “levelling up”, when suddenly…

“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction. You must stay at home.”

Boris Johnson, March 2020

The PM announces the first national lockdown, normal politics stops in its tracks, and most of the government’s big plans to weaponise its big Commons majority are put on hold.

“Cummings was always going to be point man on Covid,” says one Downing Street source. “And the next election was probably four years away. The truth is that there wasn’t a vast amount for Munira and Dougie to do in the early stages of the crisis, except hang on in there, and hope that, when the pandemic ended, they would still be valued.”

Another Number Ten aide puts it thus: “Dom was rampant at this point and his crew of Vote Leave cronies were using up most of the brainpower in Number Ten. It looked for a while as if the policy unit under Munira would be a bit of a shell – you know, very much, the Second XI.”

But others say that this isn’t the whole story. Johnson had learned to rely upon Munira at City Hall as much more than an adviser on culture and education. She was, as the PM himself put it, “a powerful nonsense detector”, unfailingly civil but equally unfailing in her intolerance of BS. And a prime minister has to sift through plenty of that.

More than one Downing Street staffer told me that Johnson would often run key decisions connected to the pandemic past her, as someone who was not involved with the day to day decision-making on Covid but whom he absolutely trusted.

“It was in the first months of the pandemic that I realised that Munira isn’t really a traditional policy chief,” says one Cabinet Minister. “She’s more like a muse or a Boris whisperer. She’s that important.”

It helped a lot that she got on with Carrie Symonds, and that she and Dougie were regarded by the Prime Minister and his fiancée as totally loyal and – unlike Dominic Cummings – totally uninterested in publicity. 

But that was about to change in the most unexpected fashion, the pace of the story forced by a horror on the other side of the Atlantic.

“Thank you, now turning to the breaking news of the morning. Violent protests continue across the country – people taking to the streets – demanding justice for George Floyd.”

US news clip, May 2020

It was the story that stopped the world in its tracks. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, captured on phone video – a horrifically modern lynching of a 46-year-old Black man in police custody, seen by billions on their screens.

In Downing Street, all energies were focused on the unwinding of the first national lockdown and what would turn out to be the disaster of the test, trace and isolate system.

“Not everyone saw how important the George Floyd murder was immediately,” says one minister. “But Boris sensed it would be huge. He was still convalescing from his own bout with Covid and watching a lot of news. He got it. The other person who sensed what was coming was Munira.”

This was far from the first case of a Black person being killed by US police. But this time it had taken place during a pandemic, when all the world was in a state of partial paralysis, confined to their homes by the virus. In this country, as in the US, the mood was pretty febrile, too – all of which made for a powerful political chemistry.

As one Downing Street source puts it: “Suddenly, there were protests and rallies all over the world. Black Lives Matter was a lot more than a slogan or a hashtag now. The statue of Edward Colston was chucked into the harbour in Bristol. It was impossible to do nothing.”

Munira Mirza already knew that she wanted to use a fair chunk of her time in Downing Street addressing the questions raised by identity politics. 

Her husband was less exercised by the detail of critical race theory or obscure scholarly arguments about systemic racism. But he understood that – if a culture war had to be fought – then the right people needed to be in place to fight it. That, after all, was his job.

“Protestors: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
News reader: The biggest gathering London has seen in weeks… and one of the most passionate.
Protestors: What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”

News clip, June 2020

The pace of the story had been forced, in other words. The Government had to do something, and fast. Boris Johnson’s instinct, more than one source put it to me, was that this was a “second front” opening in a year of battles.

“If Dom was his main general against Covid,” one Number Ten official says, “then Munira was the obvious choice to take charge of the cultural front.”

She and the PM agreed it was essential to respond, quickly, and to show that the government grasped the scale of popular feeling. 

But equally, Boris Johnson was deeply shocked  and angered by the attacks on his hero Winston Churchill, about whom he had written a best-selling biography.

“Winston Churchill is a perfect example of someone who embodies both the good of fighting on the right side of history against Hitler, and the bad in terms of his racism and the way he used his privilege, power and influence to cause untold misery and atrocities on non-white nations.”

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, June 2020

The lawyer and racial equality activist, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, in a BBC news report on June 8, 2020. 

The statue of Churchill in Parliament Square had been vandalised during a protest, with the words “IS A RACIST” spray-painted below the wartime leader’s name.

The Prime Minister and Munira Mirza were of the same mind: the voters might put up with the statue of a little-known slave trader like Edward Colston being torn down. In fact, plenty of them would go along with it. 

But the mass of the electorate would draw the line at a full-scale attack on Churchill and see no obvious connection between the hideous police murder of a Black man in Minneapolis and the hatred of the Left for the British Prime Minister who stood fast against Hitler.

“The statue of Winston Churchill, who is a national hero, has had to be boarded up for fear of violent attack and that to me is both absurd and wrong… and they’ve already made hundreds of arrests.”

Boris Johnson, June 2020 

By June 15, he was ready to announce the outline of the plan. There would be a commission on racial injustice – but it would be more than an exercise in self-flagellation, or a rubber stamp on all the main principles of critical race theory. 

Johnson was determined to weigh up the progress that had been made on racial injustice against the work that still, clearly, needed to be done:

“Things really are changing and you’re seeing young Black kids now doing better in some of the most difficult subjects in school than they were ever before. You are seeing more going to top universities. We need to start telling that story.”

Boris Johnson

There was never any question in the PM’s mind that the Commission should be set up by Munira Mirza. And David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary – who had crossed swords with her in 2017 over his review into racial inequality in the criminal justice system – was particularly unimpressed.

“It’s clear that this was dreamed up yesterday on the back of a fag packet. That Boris is just beginning to get over the detail of these successive reviews. That this is another data exercise. What we need is action. What we need is will. And it’s not clear, frankly, whether he and some of his advisers really believe this stuff. Because they haven’t really moved on it for months. And it’s not just my review – it’s many reviews.”

David Lammy MP

Suddenly, Munira Mirza’s name was being mentioned daily in news bulletins and on the homepage of news sites – precisely the opposite of how she and Dougie preferred to operate, away from the limelight.

On June 17, the PM was even put on the spot about her Revolutionary Communist past in the Commons by the Scottish Nationalist MP, Martin Docherty-Hughes.

“Martin Docherty-Hughes: The joining of Munira Mirza from the pages of the Srebrenica-denying Living Marxism/the Revolutionary Communism Party into the heart of Number 10 has not gone unnoticed Mr Speaker. And on Monday the PM appointed them to lead the commission – the government’s commission – for racial inequality. And it was greater with some disbelief given their well-known views on the matter. So I wonder, can the PM tell us today, does he agree with Ms Mirza that previous inquiries have fostered a “culture of grievance” within minority communities?”
Boris Johnson: Mr Speaker, I am a huge admirer of Dr Munira Mirza, who is a brilliant thinker on these issues, and we are certainly going to proceed with a new cross-governmental commission to look at racism and discrimination.”

House of Commons, June 2020

And after parliamentary questions came the protests in the streets. 

“Munira Mirza must go. Munira Mirza must go. Munira Mirza must go.”

Imarn Ayton and protestors chanting, June 2020

That’s the BLM activist, Imarn Ayton, on June 20 at a rally in central London, calling for the head of the Number Ten policy unit to be sacked – probably the first time that somebody holding that particular office has been named in such a way by an angry crowd at a public protest.

As one friend of the couple puts it: “I think it was beginning to dawn on Munira and Dougie what they, and especially she, had got themselves into. It was very intense and it would shake up anyone. But, in the end, it only made her more determined.”

In July, Dr Tony Sewell, the educational consultant who had previously chaired Boris Johnson’s Education Inquiry when he was Mayor of London, was named as head of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

“What we already know is that there has been a lot of work already done in this area. So what we want to do is get a focus on this. We particularly want to look at the race and ethnic disparities unit work and make sure that we now move to some sort of action on that. But essentially it is an exercise in trying to understand the matters behind, maybe, some of the recent protests and also beginning to get a grip…”

Tony Sewell, July 2020

As Sewell and his fellow commissioners got to work, Number Ten braced for the second wave of the virus and then plunged into a period of serious internal political turbulence which culminated in the departure in November of Dominic Cummings and his chief lieutenant, the Downing Street director of communications, Lee Cain.

But, even as the Kent variant of the virus swept across the land, the culture wars continued.

For a start, Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, breached the hitherto-sacred arm’s-length principle in the arts sector, warning museums and galleries that he expected them to abide by the government’s “retain and explain” position – which is to say, keeping statues or artefacts in place but providing warts and all historical material to provide context where necessary.

“So I do worry that there is culture going at the moment, looking back in shame on our history. Of course there are mixed stories but we should celebrate that strength, and I’m sending this message out very clearly to our cultural institutions: of course they should be talking about their history – and I always say, keep stuff in place, keep your monuments in place, use them to explain our history. Don’t hide it away. Weak nations try and obliterate their history…”

Oliver Dowden

Many of those who had known Oliver Dowden as David Cameron’s Deputy Chief of Staff, a Tory moderate and a Remainer were surprised by his new   as a tough-guy woke-buster.

Were Munira Mirza and Dougie Smith pulling the strings? 

Certainly, Dougie Smith was involved in the behind-the-scenes row that led to the resignation in February of Sir Charles Dunstone as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Oliver Dowden, it emerged, had refused to confirm the reappointment as a trustee of Aminul Hoque, a Bangladeshi-British expert on “decolonising” the academic curriculum. And Charles Dunstone had walked, rather than put up with the interference of a culture warrior minister.

It is tempting to say that Dowden was simply following a script written by Munira Mirza and her husband. But the truth is more subtle.

As one former Cabinet minister puts it: “Look, most Culture Secretaries sink without trace. Oliver knows this is his shot and he sees the way the wind is blowing in Number Ten. It’s not so much that he’s being told to attack wokeness as that he knows that’s the way to get on – and get promoted.”

One Downing Street source described Munira Mirza as a “software designer” and Dougie Smith as “the man who fixes the computers”. That’s a good analogy. 

On this basis, Dowden was simply making use of the app “Mirza 2021” – and if he needed a bit of technical support… well, he knew who to call, didn’t he?

In fact, friends of Dougie Smith say he was rattled by the strength of feeling provoked by the Royal Museums affair. It was becoming clearer by the day that fighting culture wars is not, in fact, all that easy, and that what looks like a cunning plan today can turn out to be a serious blunder tomorrow.

The next test of this was to come soon enough when the Sewell commission delivered its findings. 

Crucially, the Government decided to pre-brief some of the most newsworthy lines in the 258-page document before its official release on March 31 – notably its recommendation that the term BAME (for Black Asian and minority ethnic) be ditched, its claim that educational attainment was improving across most ethnic groups and, above all, its declaration that there was “no evidence” of institutional racism in the UK.

The firestorm, especially on social media, was predictable, fierce and forced Tony Sewell into a defensive position on the airwaves.

“No, no – no-one denies, no-one in the report is saying that racism doesn’t exist. We found anecdotal evidence of this. However, what we did find… was there evidence of actual, institutional racism? No. That wasn’t there, we didn’t find that in our report. What we have seen is that the term ‘institutional racism’ is sometimes wrongly applied.”

Tony Sewell

Some of those cited in the report complained that their work had been used selectively to fit a clear agenda. One notorious passage – hastily amended – even claimed that the “slave period” was not just about “profit and suffering”.

Speaking on LBC, David Lammy delivered a withering denunciation of the report:

“Let’s not forget that this report was rushed out in response to the overwhelming desire for change after the murder of George floyd. Where thousands of people rallied for the Black men, women and children suffering – still – excluded in this country because of institutional racism. This report could have been a turning point – and a moment to come together. Instead it has chosen to divide us once more, and keep us debating the existence of racism instead of doing anything about  it.” 

David Lammy on LBC

According to the conventional rules of politics, the Sewell Report had been an embarrassing failure – amateurish, too provocative, shallow when it should have been nuanced, and widely dismissed.

Did this spell the end of the quiet power couple’s ascendancy? The end, so to speak, of “Dougira”?

Certainly, there were some who hoped so. Dan Rosenfield, the civil servant brought in as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff on January 1, was no fan of Munira Mirza or indeed of her husband. He thought the work of the policy unit was thin and expected her influence to wane. 

In fact, the opposite has happened.

For a start – other than Andrew Gilligan, the PM’s transport adviser – she is the last person standing of the City Hall gang that Boris Johnson imported to Downing Street when he became Prime Minister.

The 71-year-old Eddy Lister, now elevated to the Lords and one of the PM’s most trusted confidants, finally left in January.

Ben Gascoigne, a longstanding aide to Johnson since his time as London Mayor, recently resigned as his political secretary.

It is important to understand how formative to Boris Johnson’s sense of tribalism and loyalty his period as Mayor truly was. It is no accident that he has recruited Simone Finn, now Baroness Finn, who was closely involved in his first campaign for City Hall, as his deputy chief of staff in Number Ten.

All of which is to say: he is more, rather than less dependent, upon Munira Mirza than he was a year ago. As one of Johnson’s closest allies says: “I can tell you one thing – she’s a lot more powerful than bloody Dan Rosenfield, whatever he may think.”

Second: when the dust had settled after the debacle of the Sewell Report, Boris Johnson concluded that it was not the straightforward shambles it appeared. 

Yes, the comms had been a disaster, and many people had been outraged by the commission’s findings. But populist governments such as this one thrive on outrage. 

As the vaccine roll-out proceeded, the PM grew increasingly confident that the country would be back to something resembling normality by the autumn. And he became increasingly persuaded that the Sewell Report had only been a warm-up match for a tournament he could win.

“In the end,” says one source. “Boris thinks that he and Munira are in the same place on this as the vast majority of the public, and that every time there is another row about statues or Churchill or white privilege, another Labour seat becomes winnable”.

And who will be sorting out the candidates for such seats? Why, none other than Dougie Smith.

There are also some big positions in the cultural world to fill: the chairmanship of the National Gallery, for instance; the equivalent post at the Royal Opera House. Richard Lambert will reach the end of his second term as Chair of the British Museum next year. And, of course, the Royal Museums Greenwich needs a successor to Sir Charles Dunstone.

Unofficially or otherwise, you can bet that Dougie will be involved in all these significant changes that lie ahead.

Top of the government’s agenda post-pandemic will, of course, be economic recovery, jobs and so-called “building back better”. 

But culture wars have been described to me as the “B-plot” of the Boris Movie – which is to say the second, but still important narrative that will keep the viewers glued to their screens and, it is claimed, on the side of the Prime Minister.

There’s the practical business of filling the new cultural elite with people sympathetic to Boris Johnson’s way of doing things. And there’s the political business of filling the airwaves and social media with a conflict you think you can win.

“When it comes to culture wars,” says one senior minister. “Even when we lose in the media, we win with the public. Keir Starmer has no answer to this stuff, because his party is so crazily woke.”

In this context, Munira Mirza is incredibly important: as a British-Asian woman, from a working class background, famed for her civility and academic prowess, she helps senior Tories feel that they have permission to pursue this cultural battle against identity politics and to take on social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. 

It helps them to rebut the charge that this is just gentrified skinhead strategy, or the politics of the football terraces – it’s a common sense, intellectually coherent position that reflects what the great mass of people feel, especially outside elite London. And it helps them to explain why Boris Johnson is more in tune with the electorate than the social justice warriors of the Left.

Naturally, this whole thesis and set of assumptions have not yet been fully tested by the cultural skirmishes of the past year, But they will be, after the pandemic subsides and the government gets stuck into this terrain: the baiting of social justice movements and a march through the institutions, creating a new cohort of pro-Boris loyalists in the cultural apparat. 

Imagine Dougie’s delight, to take but one example, that his old FCS comrade, Sir Robbie Gibb, has been appointed as a trustee of the beleaguered BBC.

At the end of all this glitters a much greater prize: a general election that delivers an even larger Conservative victory. After Labour’s trouncing in last month’s local elections and the Hartlepool by-election, I am told that party chiefs are aiming for – as they put it – a “Blair-scale” majority of at least 120.

An astonishing ambition for a party that has already been in power for 11 years. Yet the Conservative government of 2021 bears almost no resemblance to the Cameron coalition that entered Downing Street in 2010.

It is the child of Brexit, unashamedly populist – and a magnet for outsiders and outliers like Munira Mirza and Dougie Smith.

For now, at least, they are the very heart of power. Their marriage, one of Westminster’s most solid, is one of the foundations of the government: symbolic of the PM’s taste for mavericks, his insistence upon absolute loyalty and his refusal to play by the rules.

How many couples get to make such a claim? How many marriages follow such an extraordinary path?

Romance, as ever, takes many forms.

Next in this file

The invisible fixer

The invisible fixer

When Tortoise journalists set out to find a photograph of one of the most influential figures in British politics, they were astounded to find that just one existed

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