From intern to baroness in seven years, Charlotte Owen’s entry to the House of Lords has left even friends scratching their heads in wonder. Her elevation might be hard to explain, but it tells us volumes about the way British democracy works.
Just before Westminster broke up for summer, the House of Lords got its newest – and youngest ever – life peer. Charlotte Owen was one of seven people that Boris Johnson had successfully nominated for this honour. A further eight were rejected – the usual rate is 10 per cent.
Owen’s name stood out – not because of something she’d done, but because of what she hadn’t. She’d been a part-time special adviser in the corridors of Number 10 where others had done far more to shape both Johnson’s government and the country. And, as Tortoise has previously revealed, her relatively short career history appears to have been inflated.
Owen has so far shunned the limelight and refused to give interviews, and very few people would speak about her on the record. That information vacuum enabled a series of wild conspiracy theories to circulate as to why she had been granted her peerage. But in reality, it seems Owen hadn’t done much at all.
Charlotte Owen was born on 10 May 1993 to Michael and Kathryn Owen, a financial consultant and a secretary, respectively, and grew up in the small Cheshire village of Alderley Edge. They were, according to family friend Michael May, a “fairly typical English middle class family”. Her father died a couple of years ago, her mother recently retired, and she has a brother and sister who are much older than her. No one we spoke to in Alderley Edge – other than May – was aware that they had a new parliamentary representative.
While attending the independent Alderley Edge School for Girls, Owen started to show an interest in politics. We tried to speak to the current headteacher to see if she could remember what kind of student Charlotte was, but didn’t have much luck – something that soon became a pattern.
Tortoise approached multiple lecturers at her university, former classmates and friends, every MP Owen has ever worked for, Portland Communications (the only other employer she cites) the House of Lords, CCHQ, the Cabinet Office, Number 10 and, of course, Charlotte herself.
Eventually, we did hear from an intermediary on behalf of Charlotte, to clarify some minor points raised during our reporting – but she didn’t speak to us directly.
However, a friend who worked alongside her in Downing Street said: “All I know from last year is that she worked extremely hard at the toughest coal face (relations between Number 10 and the party) and everyone from whichever wing or group liked and trusted her. Quite a thing.”
Owen also “knows the party inside out, is hugely aware and sensitive of the various issues that preoccupy different groups, handles everyone with tact and diplomacy,” the friend added.
They were not alone in praising Owen. Almost everyone we spoke to said how nice, kind and considerate she was. But is that really enough to qualify her for a role in the House of Lords?
After leaving school aged 18 Owen managed, according to her LinkedIn profile, to wangle an internship at the Tatton constituency office of then chancellor George Osborne. A year later, while at the University of York, her profile states that she returned to his office.
How did she do it? No one at the Tatton constituency office responded, but people who were there at the time have told Tortoise her role was not quite as her LinkedIn profile suggested.
According to friends from university, Owen didn’t have any particularly deeply held political views. One told us she was “definitely a fan of the Tory party… rather than actually really being engaged with the issues”.
Another said: “She was very Tory, but I was not sure she knew why – she was culturally Tory… I wouldn’t say her political beliefs were that strong – it was more ‘this is what I think because I was brought up to think that’.”
While not particularly active on campus, Owen attended the Conservative party conference as a student, mixing with ministers and the party’s rising stars. It was here, friends say, that she met her boyfriend at the time, James Stanbury, whose father Steve Stanbury would go on to run as the Ukip candidate for the Forest of Dean in 2015 – Owen’s last year at university.
After interning for then MEP Jacqueline Foster for a month in June 2015, Owen’s CV went a little quiet again. She did another internship, this time at PR consultancy Portland Communications – but no one we spoke to there could remember her.
Owen then returned to politics, interning for the Conservative MP William Wragg. While Wragg declined to speak to Tortoise, he confirmed that the future baroness had indeed worked for him, and that she was “pleasant, polite and professional”.
Just a few months later, armed with glowing references from recognisable names, she landed another internship – this time for Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary. Owen must have made an impact – after a short interlude working for another minister, Alok Sharma, she was back with Johnson, in a split role working 50-50 for him and former minister Jake Berry. Neither Sharma nor Berry wanted to talk about her.
By December 2019 Owen had once again become Johnson’s senior parliamentary assistant. One year later she rose to her most senior role yet: special adviser to the prime minister.
Or did she? To pinch a phrase, it seems that recollections may vary.
Owen’s LinkedIn profile states that she worked as a special adviser to the former prime minister from February 2021 until October 2022. But her name is not among those listed as working in Number 10 in the annual report on special advisers, published by the Cabinet Office in June 2021. Her name does appear in the same report for the following year as splitting her time 50-50 between the prime minister and then chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris. And various sources told Tortoise she was very junior and wasn’t well known. While she remained a mystery to people working in Number 10, Charlotte’s role did raise her profile among backbench MPs.
James Duddridge MP, one of Boris Johnson’s closest allies and at one point his private parliamentary secretary, declined to speak to us, saying it was “old news” – but appeared to acknowledge the discrepancies on her CV.
“Whether she was a special adviser or a researcher, job titles don’t really matter,” Duddridge told the BBC. “She was really quite vital to the Number 10 operation, she linked the prime minister with the whole of the parliamentary party.”
By 2022, Johnson needed a different kind of outreach. After months of damaging partygate stories and a vote of no confidence – which he survived – the Chris Pincher affair finally brought the prime minister down in July 2022.
As Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street to begrudgingly admit defeat, some of Owen’s old friends sat up and took notice. Because standing in the front row was Owen, taking a quick snap of the gathering journalists, glancing at her phone from time to time. They were surprised – they had no idea she was working for the prime minister. And the biggest surprise was yet to come.
Owen did not stick around for the Liz Truss premiership, but sources said she was at the Conservative party conference with Johnson loyalists like Nigel Adams MP and Jake Berry. Then reports surfaced in the autumn that Owen was in line for a peerage. Earlier this summer it was confirmed. Owen had gone from a constituency intern to become Lady Owen, Baroness of Alderley Edge, in less than seven years.
One friend told us: “Charlotte loved the pomp and ceremony… she always joked – ‘I don’t know what I want to do, I just want to be a lady’…. her thing had been that she wanted to marry a lord.”
Owen is not the only appointee to the House of Lords whose suitability is being questioned:
- Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen is now Lord Houchen of High Leven. The South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) which he chairs is currently under investigation following allegations of corruption, illegality and wrongdoing. Houchen has denied the allegations.
- Failed mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey became Baron Bailey of Paddington during a live police investigation into whether he had breached lockdown rules by attending a Christmas party, after a video emerged showing attendees drunkenly dancing. Bailey has said that he “apologises unreservedly” for the event.
- Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s one-time chief of staff, has become Baron Rosenfield after bullying allegations – which he denies – were not investigated. Instead, as Tortoise has previously reported, he was given the details of the people who raised the complaint.
The new peers may prove able legislators, contributing to public life for many years to come. Or, like many others, they may take the title, and the honour, translate it into valuable directorships and consultancies and disappear from view.
Last week, Owen voted for the first time – with the government, attempting to block a series of opposition changes to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
She has started her legislative career without any scrutiny or any checks and balances – in short, without a member of the public having the faintest idea who she is, or having the ability to do anything about it.
This is democracy, UK-style.