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January 21, 2020

Boris, Carrie and me: Nimco Ali on having the Prime Minister’s ear

by M J Farah

Nimco Ali is an FGM activist, Tory campaigner — and third wheel to the PM and his girlfriend. She talks to Susannah Butter about race, being a ‘weirdo misfit’, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candle

Nimco Ali
Nimco Ali ( Natasha Pszenicki )

Nimco Ali admits she is not a typical Tory campaigner. “Because I’m black, people were surprised to see me on their doorsteps there telling them to vote Conservative,” she says. “They were so polite to me whereas the white campaigners got s**t.”

Ali, 36, arrived in Britain aged four as a refugee from Somalia. She describes her job as “chief fanny defender”, and was awarded an OBE last year for her work to end female genital mutilation (FGM), which was inflicted on her when she was seven. She’s Muslim and defiantly non-partisan — she grew up supporting Labour, stood as a Women’s Equality Party candidate in 2017 and although she counts the Prime Minster and his partner Carrie Symonds as friends, she voted Green in the last general election. What does Boris Johnson make of this? “He knows. I’ve told people in the Conservative Party and no one called me a traitor as they would’ve on the Left. I voted Green because I wanted to take away from a Labour majority.”

Despite being worn out from a combination of her new intermittent fasting diet and London Marathon training, Ali is forthright, fearless company. She jokes she is “the weirdo misfit” that Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings said he wanted in the civil service: “I feel seen.”

Within five minutes of meeting we cover her love life (she wants to go on a blind date but not with a “Corbyn-y woke boy”), the mayoral race (she’s disparaging about Sadiq Khan), and Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle (“I hope she gets thrush from messing around with vaginas, she’s freaking people out about them, which makes my job stopping FGM harder.”) She fawns over a picture she’s been sent of Zac Goldsmith entering the House of Lords — she pronounces him “cute” in ermine. He’s a friend and made her the necklace she’s wearing “with his own fair hands”: a gold cheetah like those they rescued together in Somaliland. Before I can suggest she dates someone like him she says: “He’s not my type, he’s more like my brother.” Read more Londoner’s Diary: Nimco Ali can’t fly despite friends in high places

Ali’s life has been shaped by a chance encounter with Boris Johnson in 2011. They have what has been called one of the strangest relationships in Westminster. She had been trying to put FGM on the political agenda without much luck until she bumped into him in Putney. “He was posing for selfies so I went up with my Sainsbury’s bags and asked if we could talk about FGM. From that day he listened. He didn’t ask vulgar questions, just asked what he could do.”

That meeting led to Johnson setting up a  violence against women and girls board and including FGM in that. Will he continue the good work as PM? “Yes. Empowering women and girls is at the forefront of the Government’s agenda and we have an opportunity to end FGM by 2030. Boris Johnson gets it.”

Post-election, he and Symonds “can finally unpack their boxes” at Downing Street. “Carrie has incredible taste,” says Ali. “Her flat in Camberwell was impeccable. She has an eye for style and detail and makes you feel welcome, putting up photos that remind you of times together.” So what can we expect at No 11? “Theresa May had a Grenfell record on the wall signed by Stormzy. I’m not sure if that will still be there. I don’t think much else will change. British stately buildings are tacky. They have plastic flowers at Clarence House, why?” Her admiration for Symonds goes beyond interior design. “The resurgence of me doing more on FGM was meeting Carrie.” They bonded when Symonds was running Zac Goldsmith’s winning 2017 campaign to be MP for Richmond Park and have supported each other since: while Symonds successfully challenged the release of taxi driver and sexual offender John Worboys, who targeted her; and at her first public outing as Johnson’s partner, when Ali held her hand.

Squad goals: Ali with Carrie Symonds in September 2018 (Twitter)

“Carrie is an amazing woman. Her activism is one of the things I respect. We became close after the Worboys campaign. I understand how much it takes to campaign about something you have personally experienced. We had a conversation about how FGM doesn’t define me, but if out of my experience I can make the world a better place that’s good, and if it wasn’t for her Worboys would be out on the streets.” Symonds’s dog Dilyn joined them canvassing. He is “a good egg”, says Ali, adding mischievously: “even though, being Somali, I always say animals should either be on a plate or outside.”

She’s diplomatic about Johnson’s personal life — his divorce from QC Marina Wheeler is still being finalised. “As long as you’re not a murderer it’s none of my business. That’s how I deal with the people I work with.” What does she make of Johnson’s comment that women in burkas were like letterboxes? “I’m not here to defend him but he wrote that as a columnist and their job is to provoke. An article that no one has read is not more damning than all the men who perpetrate violence in the name of my religion.” Her sister-in-law wears a burka and Ali teases her about it, “I tell her, ‘Did I see you yesterday or was that just another woman in a burka, I don’t know what you guys look like?’”

She continues, explaining her relationship with the Prime Minister: “Had the Labour Party been willing to take action I would have worked with them but they aren’t entitled to my vote. If you have been ignored for 20 years and then someone listens to you, that matters.” Keir Starmer is her favourite to win the Labour leadership race although she texted Jess Phillips to wish her good luck. “If I’d tweeted it may have done more harm than good.”

Travel buddies: Nimco Ali and Carrie Symonds in Somaliland in October 2018 (Twitter)

After we meet news breaks about the case of girls who were groomed by gangs of predominantly south Asian men in Manchester. Ali calls me to talk about it. “It shows the problem we face. These white working-class girls were from Labour constituencies where votes from ethnic minorities meant more than the girls. Labour won’t risk losing votes from South Asian communities by taking action on grooming gangs.”

A year ago Ali set up The Five Foundation, a global partnership to end FGM by 2030. Next month it is hosting a film screening of Jaha’s Promise, about a Gambian anti-FGM campaigner, at Wild by Tart in Victoria. At the Government’s UK-Africa Investment Summit in London yesterday, Ali represented the foundation. “Progress was stalled before the election. Not that Brexit held back women’s rights, but people being tribal did. Alok Sharma, head of Dfid, is amazing and one of the first things he said was, ‘Let’s get on with it, let’s deliver for vulnerable people. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg understands. And Priti Patel. If I have kids I want them to be as ballsy as her.”

This year she will take the fight to the US with her foundation: “I want to meet Ivanka Trump. She is doing amazing work on female economic empowerment. She understands it because her mother worked her way up.”

The one person she’s struck off her list is Meghan Markle. “We were going to meet on International Women’s Day but I don’t know now. Harry should have told his grandmother they were leaving the royal family before he told the whole world — that will break a granny’s heart.” She’s friendly with Prince Charles. “When I got my OBE my niece asked why I was talking to him for so long. That moment when the next king remembered my face and asked if we were winning the war on FGM, I felt like I was getting somewhere.”

Source: Evening Standard

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