It was the grand drumroll for the world’s leading democracies, thrashing out how to “Build Back Better” (and greener) after the pandemic as they convened in the picturesque Cornish fishing resort of Carbis Bay. The result was a rich catch of communiques promising better global governance, as a new US President announced a revival of American interest in the wider world after the Trump era, and Boris Johnson shook off his reputation as the wild child of the G7 to exude purposefulness on climate change — and argue about trade terms for groceries under the Northern Ireland protocol.
But the major domestic winner was the woman whose influence over the summit was on display in the zingy imagery and framing of the event — the new Mrs Johnson, formerly the “first fiancée”, now officially wed and deploying her own soft power as Queen of Carbis Bay. Put aside the actual business — boosting the global vaccine rollout, dealing with Brexit headaches and getting fissiparous states to move faster on global warming in the run-up to COP26 in November — and the weekend ran like the kind of smart seaside break Carrie might organise for a select few enviro-influencer friends. It required sundry changes of flowing designer dresses from Carrie, finger-licking barbecue food secured from local suppliers and a ton of well-orchestrated, giggly beach moments.
“She has been absolutely at the forefront of planning how this would go and the optics of it all,” says one Number 10 insider. “This has been as much Carrie’s success as Boris’s”. And with her background in ocean-saving charitable causes, it also deploys sustainability as the new vehicle for British “soft power” — uniting well-intentioned leaders who might dislike us for quitting the EU but who can’t really object when the PM embraces green causes and girls’ education in developing countries.
The emergence of Carrie as de facto co-hostess of a “Johnson and Johnson” event marks the evolution of the summits, first convened under the US president Gerald Ford in 1974, from earnest talking shops to glitzy national shop windows. Carrie Johnson has been “far and away the most involved British prime ministerial spouse at a global summit”, according to one diplomat involved in the “roadmap” to the event. This was cheesy diplomacy at its most relentless, kicking off with a Mamma Mia! style photo shoot.
After a period when the UK has been firmly on the naughty step of the liberal international family, it was also a re-entry programme. A new US presidency in search of a backdrop in Europe for its own reconnection quest was happy enough to go along with it: critical behind the scenes of the PM’s handling of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol on trade, but all smiles for the front-of-house pictures.
The meetings of first ladies are a test in themself to avoid stiffness or the sense that accomplished women are mere arm-candy to the power-blokes. The Carrie-era solution was to ham up the glamorous mother-grandmother combo with Jill Biden, and one-year-old Wilfred in tow for extra “cute-power”. The toddler wore a nappy and the wildly sprouting hair of a firstborn whose mother refuses to let him near a barber. On we rolled through picturesque shots and shiny, happy moments. Had Carrie overdone it? The question was soon the murmured gossip and Whatsapp-ery of the occasion. It depends if you believe that too much is too much — or fair enough if you have just married the Prime Minister at speed ahead of the G7 and want to make your mark.
Mrs Johnson certainly appealed to President Biden, who was, one observer reports, “reeled in like a Cornish mackerel” by Carrie’s charm offensive and cracked a Mad Men-era joke about how he and Boris had “married above their stations”. The ease with which the new Mrs Johnson moved among world leaders at the Saturday night barbecue she hosted must have been as sweet as the buttered rum on offer for a figure who was recently derided by Dominic Cummings as a fussy, meddling narcissist getting in the PM’s way at important times. By the late hours, it was all about marshmallows around the fire pit and Cornish singers leading the in-crowd in sea shanties. Best not to ask too much about what had happened to social distancing by this point.
The interweaving of Carrie Power and the (real) royal variety was also on display, A dinner hosted at the green proto-utopia of the Eden Project on Friday night had rolled out the Queen, Prince Charles, Camilla, Prince William and Kate, who chatted amiably with Carrie on the way in. Placements also reflected Mrs Johnson’s tendency to make a beeline for the more fun souls among the G7 leaders — her seat at the formal dinner was between Emanuel Macron, who veers between being delightful and obstreperous (a German source tells me his mood alternated between “sun and thunder”) and Canada’s Justin Trudeau who just loves an international party.
Back on the main agenda, sausage wars raged on. At one point Macron and Johnson crossed swords over the technical status of Northern Ireland. By the next day, the French were briefing a positive “reset” in the relationship. The Johnson-Macron relationship is going to roll like this, from tears to smiles, for the foreseeable future. The agreements on vaccines and climate change were on the modest side of ambitious, when you peered through the re-announcements of previous commitments.
It’s a reality check on the victories and limits of these pow-wows. When the cameras stop clicking and the marshmallow fire pit is hosed down, the main issues — grappling with trade friction over Northern Ireland, a disunited Europe and America tussling with China and Russia — are not much more resolved than before the democratic world’s A-list took their Boho break in Cornwall. Still, it looked good, which was more than half the point. Much of that was down to the savvy party-planning of Carrie, now firmly out of the
No 10 backroom and into the global limelight in one sunny leap.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist