The Bow Group, which boasts Tory grandees Norman Tebbit and Norman Lamont among its patrons, has said that Ms Symonds appears to enjoy huge influence in the hiring and firing of No 10 staff and in policy making, despite having no formal role in government.
Warning that her reported involvement in several recent changes of personnel at Downing Street looked like “cronyism”, the group’s chairman Ben Harris-Quinney called for an inquiry to be held in public, with testimony from current and former No 10 staff and the release of records and correspondence.
“Consistent reports in the press suggest that Ms Symonds is taking a central role in running the country, without any authority or accountability to do so,” said Mr Harris-Quinney.
“She has not been elected, she has not been appointed, she holds no legal or constitutional powers to make decisions relating to who should hold government posts, to be party to privileged information, or to set the policy direction of the country.”
But Mr Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton contradicted Mr Harris-Quinney’s claims.
Asked if it was true to say Ms Symonds was taking a central role in running the country, Ms Stratton said: “It’s incorrect. The prime minister’s fiancée is raising their son Wilf and returned to work at the wildlife charity the Aspinall Foundation after her maternity leave at the end of January.”
Ms Stratton declined to comment on the Bow Group’s call for an inquiry, telling a Westminster media briefing: “We have no response to that at all.
“As you will see shortly, the prime minister is coming forward with a 60-page plan to get us out of lockdown, and that is his focus at the moment.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson regarded attacks on his fiancée as sexist, Ms Stratton replied: “That’s not something I’ve heard him say.”
Questions over Ms Symonds’s role in No 10 have been raised after she was reported to have played a part in the shock departure of the head of Mr Johnson’s “Save the Union” unit, Oliver Lewis, as she did in the earlier ousting of Vote Leave supremo Dominic Cummings and his close ally Lee Cain.
Two of her close friends have recently been appointed to key No 10 roles, senior adviser Henry Newman and Simone Finn, the new deputy chief of staff who hosted Ms Symonds’s 30th birthday celebrations.
Mr Harris-Quinney said: “Failure to clarify Ms Symonds’s position and authority, and to ensure that Ms Symonds is not and cannot take any action in governing the United Kingdom, potentially has huge hazards for the government, the Conservative Party, and the nation.
“The public take a very dim view of cronyism, democracy in Britain is and must always be sacred, and no one should be involved in running our country without accountability to the people.”
Although her depiction by critics as a Lady Macbeth figure has sparked accusations of sexism, no one denies she enjoys influence beyond that of previous prime ministerial consorts.
The former head of Conservative Party press operations is keen to soften the government’s image, through the departure of Vote Leave veterans including Mr Cummings and Mr Lewis, and push forward the green agenda as a committed environmentalist.
The Bow Group, which is independent of the party despite its strong Conservative links, said Ms Symonds is not a special adviser and was therefore not accountable to any minister.
That also meant she had not been security vetted, giving her authorisation to view privileged government information.
A Downing Street spokesman denied that Mr Lewis’s abrupt resignation on Friday had undermined the operations of the union unit, which was set up by Mr Johnson to counter the independence drive of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party but has lost two chiefs in the space of a few weeks.
“The union unit will continue to support the prime minister in his capacity as minister for the union,” said Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson.
“The prime minister’s commitment to levelling up across all four countries of the United Kingdom stands and he will continue to prioritise that work.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on speculation that Scottish-born Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove might be given new responsibilities for defending the union.
Ms Stratton said that recent months had seen the Westminster administration “working very well” with the Scottish government on the UK’s emergence from lockdown.
Despite the fact that Scottish schoolchildren have returned to the classroom ahead of their English counterparts, Ms Stratton said that Mr Johnson’s roadmap ran “hand in hand with Nicola Sturgeon’s plans”.
“Going back further, you have the furlough and support for Scottish businesses that the Westminster government made available,” she said.
“You have test and trace and the help for the Highlands and Islands, and most critically the Westminster government making sure that the number of vaccines were there to distribute around Scotland.
“So the relationship between the Westminster government and Scotland and the Scottish people is working very well at the moment.
“What matters is what’s felt on the ground by the Scottish people, and I think Scottish people would say that they’ve seen support for their businesses, they’ve seen support whether they are self-employed or not, and they’ve also most brilliantly seen the vaccine rolled out around Scotland.”
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