Queen Elizabeth has outlasted fourteen British Prime Ministers in the seventy years she was on the throne. She asked a fifteenth, Liz Truss, to form another new government two days before her death. The first, Winston Churchill, dates back well into the nineteenth century, from 1874; Truss was born a full 101 years later. With some she developed a close relationship, with others it never became more than ‘a must’.
Each week, all these prime ministers, twelve men and two women – if we ignore Truss for a moment – went to Buckingham Palace to have an audience with Her Majesty. Such a conversation about state affairs lasted in principle half an hour, but could easily extend to a few hours. It was important to go well prepared, because prime ministers who hadn’t done their homework quickly ran into trouble with the more knowledgeable Elizabeth.
According to those involved, the conversations were often special, precisely because both knew that they took place on the basis of guaranteed confidentiality. A relief from the snake pit where they often spent the rest of the week. Finally a serious conversation with someone who doesn’t want your job, Harold Wilson once sighed. “You can be completely, utterly honest, even indiscreet,” exulted John Major in the 1990s. “Nothing is off limits.”
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Despite this strict confidentiality, a few things have leaked out over the years from rather random prime ministers, but also from staff. It is also clear from contacts with other mortals that Elizabeth was generally more comfortable with male leaders than with women. For example, the relationship with Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister, was quite strained. When Thatcher arrived at the palace a little early, Elizabeth quietly let the ‘Iron Lady’ lead the way for fifteen minutes.
Although they appreciated each other’s professionalism, the women did not click very well. The Queen liked dry humour, not a virtue Thatcher was richly endowed with. Elizabeth also thought Thatcher was sometimes too preachy and, according to people close to her, was irritated by the way the prime minister ignored growing discomfort in the Commonwealth about South Africa’s apartheid regime.
According to Thatcher, it was all nonsense. “Stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were, of course, too good not to make up,” she wrote mockingly in her memoir. That Thatcher had not left the Queen untouched was shown by the fact that she attended Thatcher’s funeral in 2013, contrary to protocol. The only person she had done that to was Churchill.
Not all men got along well. Her relationship with Tony Blair was difficult. The Queen, who valued good manners, strongly rejected the suggestion to call him ‘Tony’. It also bothered the Queen that Blair’s wife Cherie was wearing trousers and that she was wearing no trousers at one of their first meetings. curtseythe little bow of the knee for a monarch.
At his first audience, Elizabeth also teased Blair, then 43, about his inexperience. “You are my tenth prime minister,” she told him. “The first was Winston. It was before you were born.” It was precisely the same inexperienced Blair who pointed out to the Queen and ‘The Family’ that they should show a little more public sympathy after the dramatic death of Princess Diana and the unprecedented collective outburst of the British people.The case left a mark on Blair’s relationship with the Queen, although sources also reported that the Queen later thanked Blair for his intervention.
Her relationship with Churchill in the 1950s had been very different. The celebrated statesman, himself already 77 years old, had initially been somewhat skeptical of such an inexperienced head of state. But soon a kind of father-daughter relationship developed between the two. According to former politician and historian Roy Jenkins, Churchill almost idolized the young queen. That feeling was mutual. When Churchill stepped down in 1955, she wrote to him how much she would miss him: “It is useless to pretend that any successor will ever be able to take the place of my first Prime Minister.”
It wasn’t just a one-way street from Prime Ministers to Buckingham Palace. Sometimes the Queen was also a guest at the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street. On her silver jubilee, the then Prime Minister James Callaghan hosted her a dinner where Elizabeth was given a silver teapot. That gift was well received. “Oh, I am so glad you did not receive the present from Mr. Disraeli [destijds premier, red] to Queen Victoria,” she said. “He gave her a painting of himself.”
The cordiality of the relationship was not necessarily determined by race. She got on very well with Harold Wilson, her first Prime Minister, who had no upper-class background. With David Cameron, on the other hand, who is a distant relative of the Queen, relations remained cool. Cameron made the faux pas to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the Queen was “squirming with pleasure” when he called her to say Scots had voted against independence in the 2014 referendum. Blushing, Cameron apologized.
Little is known about her relationship with Boris Johnson. However, after he almost succumbed to Covid-19, she allowed him to go jogging in the palace gardens to regain his strength.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 19 September 2022