How Queen Elizabeth proved a trusted confidante to all her prime ministers – The Telegraph
From working with Sir Winston Churchill all the way up to Boris Johnson, the late Queen kept her cards close to her chest
Queen Elizabeth II was served by 15 prime ministers, the first, Winston Churchill, born in 1874, the last, Liz Truss, born in 1975. Because convention has it that audiences between the monarch and her prime minister remain absolutely confidential, and Queen Elizabeth herself never made any public comment on the character or achievements of her prime ministers, much that has been written about the various relationships remains supposition, and will likely remain so until the late Queen’s papers are publicly available.
Her earlier prime ministers have either published memoirs, or been the subjects of biographies, or both, and with the passing of time some details have leaked out about certain aspects of their relationships; what we know about the two or three most recent incumbents has to rely on lobby, court and media gossip – but where it has not been rigorously denied, it is usually safe to assume it is not entirely wrong.
(1874-1965; served 1951-55)
On the night of the Queen’s accession, Churchill proclaimed “a new Elizabethan age” and, with his profound sense of history, said that “famous have been the reigns of our queens”. Like the Edwardian he was, Churchill would arrive for audiences in a frock coat and top hat, and set about subtly educating Elizabeth in matters of statecraft. The audiences became longer and longer – though Churchill claimed they talked much about racing and polo – and the public seemed reassured by the double act of a young Queen and an aged and hugely experienced chief counsellor. He told a close friend in 1952: “I think she is splendid.” In recognition of his service during the war, she offered him a dukedom on his retirement in 1955, but only after being assured he would turn it down.
Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, said that, “he of course loved the Queen… she aroused in him all his romantic ideas of sovereignty and monarchy”. At his state funeral, the Queen arrived before Churchill’s family, surrendering her precedence to them in a unique gesture.
(1897-1977; served 1955-57)
Eden and the Queen had very correct relations, though she was reputedly concerned about his Suez policy (he insisted she never complained about it). Lady Avon, Eden’s widow, disclosed that when he was invited to the Palace on Churchill’s retirement, a lengthy conversation ensued before the subject of governing Britain was raised. Eden reputedly interrupted the conversation to say, “Well, ma’am?”, to which she allegedly replied, “I suppose I ought to be asking you to form a government.” It was not something she had had cause to do before, having inherited Churchill. She was genuinely sympathetic when his premiership was ended by ill health and the debacle of Suez, and maintained a regular correspondence with him for some years, and stayed at his country house.
(1894-1986; served 1957-63)
Macmillan genuinely admired and respected Queen Elizabeth. Their relations were said to be relaxed, with Elizabeth looking up to him as a mentor and guide during the nearly seven years he served her. Like Churchill, he treated her with exaggerated chivalry and gallantry, which charmed her, and Macmillan wrote of the “supreme loyalty” he felt towards her and to the institution of monarchy.
He found Elizabeth “charming, and well-informed” and relished his audiences with her, not least because of the trouble she had taken to brief herself about foreign affairs. She seems to have admired the way he turned what remained of the Empire into a Commonwealth that was a happy association of states with a common aspect to their history. Macmillan also understood the importance, for party-political reasons, of subtly associating Toryism with the success of the monarchy, and vice versa. However, his insistence that the Queen appoint Lord Home as his successor was almost certainly unconstitutional, as he would not have been the cabinet’s choice.
(1903-95; served 1963-64)
Her first prime minister born in the 20th century, Home, as a Scottish landowner, was an old family friend through the Bowes-Lyons, the family of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Unlike all her other prime ministers, Douglas-Home (who renounced his earldom in order to sit in the Commons) had a close understanding of and relationship with the Queen that dated back to her childhood, and they were exceptionally comfortable in each other’s company. “They talked about dogs and shooting together… they were the same sort of people,” a courtier noted.
(1916-95; served 1964-70 and 1974-76)
Wilson was not only the first of Queen Elizabeth’s prime ministers without aristocratic connections, but his intellectualism outdid that of Eden and certainly Macmillan, making him the sort of politician of which she had little or no experience. Wilson liked Queen Elizabeth, and enjoyed the ceremonial trappings of the Crown; she in turn seems greatly to have respected him.
Picking up a recurring theme among her prime ministers, Wilson said his audiences with her were the only occasions when he could have a frank and serious conversation with someone who wouldn’t leak it and was not after his job. He was certainly no republican, not least because he realised he could achieve all he wished politically even in a monarchy.
His biographers say he spoke to the Queen as an equal and treated her as an intelligent woman, which she valued; and he in turn valued her advice and that he could talk to her about absolutely anything and in complete confidence, at a time when he managed a cabinet of rivalries and intrigues. Wilson was sufficiently popular with the Royal family that they invited him out on picnics with them when he went to Balmoral, a gesture not always extended to visiting premiers.
(1916-2005; served 1970-74)
Heath had none of Wilson’s affection for Queen Elizabeth: and was the first prime minister since Ramsay MacDonald to be authentically working class. But although MacDonald had charmed George V, Heath had no small talk and little charm to waste on anybody. He was difficult enough in his relations with men, and almost hopeless in those with women.
Courtiers suggested that he was unintentionally rude to Queen Elizabeth, certainly brusque, and, unlike his predecessors, uninterested in his interaction with her or with her constitutional role. He was always correct with her, but she did not find him easy. Heath was also remarkably uninterested in the Commonwealth, preferring to concentrate on Europe, which irritated the Queen because of her deep interest in the institution.
They did not have a good relationship, in spite of her efforts to form one, though it has been claimed that they became close over the troubles in Northern Ireland, which spiralled during Heath’s rule.
(1912-2005; served 1976-79)
Callaghan had held three great offices of state before becoming prime minister, was well known and liked by Queen Elizabeth, and like Wilson had a sentimental attachment to monarchy and its trappings. Also like Wilson, Callaghan enjoyed his audiences with her and the wide-ranging conversations they had, and found the by now highly experienced Queen a very useful confidential adviser. He was also adept at small talk, and they forged a strong and happy relationship: though he once said that what a prime minister gets from the Queen is “friendliness and not friendship”.
He had good antennae that enabled him to spot when he had advanced a policy of which she did not entirely approve and, as prime minister during the country’s near-bankruptcy in 1976 and the (for him) fatal Winter of Discontent in 1979, he did well to keep his relations with the sovereign as good as they were. “One of the great things about her,” Callaghan said, “is that she always seems able to see the funny side of life.”
(1925-2013; served 1979-90)
Thanks to The Sunday Times’s 1986 exposé of tensions between her and Queen Elizabeth over sanctions on South Africa to try to force an end to apartheid, Mrs Thatcher is the prime minister who it is widely believed fell foul of the monarch. While there is no doubt that the Queen abhorred apartheid and believed, along with many Commonwealth politicians, that sanctions would help end it, it was the one main difference of opinion in the 11 years that Mrs Thatcher was her longest-serving prime minister.
Mrs Thatcher treated the Queen with utter courtesy and deference, and did not patronise her: in return, the Queen recognised and admired the transformation of the country that came during the Thatcher years, and saw that her prime minister was, like Churchill, an out-of-the-ordinary figure. They remained in touch after Mrs Thatcher left office, and had cordial relations.
(born 1943; served 1990-97)
The first of Queen Elizabeth’s prime ministers to be younger than her, he managed some difficult times with discretion and tact – he served during the annus horribilis and had to handle both the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales – the most constitutionally fraught event since the abdication – and the question of whether the Queen should pay tax.
He was liked by the Royal family because of the concern he had shown for Princes William and Harry during the very public disintegration of their parents’ marriage: and after their mother’s death, when he had left office, he was appointed a special guardian to the Princes with oversight of their financial interests. Major was valued for the advice he gave the Queen on these complex family matters.
(born 1953; served 1997-2007)
Blair claimed the Queen said at his first audience: “You are my 10th prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.” She declined his invitation to call him “Tony”. He had barely taken up office when the furore erupted over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. He took some credit for calming down public feeling, both through his own remarks to the nation on the morning of her death and through advising the Royal household on tempering its approach to the management of the aftermath of the death. However, he was felt to have upstaged Queen Elizabeth during a walkabout in November 1997 to mark her and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Golden Wedding, and there were embarrassing press stories after the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother that Blair was trying to “muscle in” and take a greater role than was his due during the obsequies.
He had good relations with the Queen, enjoyed his audiences and other talks with her, and was a committed monarchist – more so than some of his entourage or, indeed, his high-profile wife, who refused to curtsey to the sovereign. The Queen admired his role in concluding the Good Friday Agreement. Both were conscious of a generation gap – evident in the toe-curling episode at the Millennium Dome on New Year’s Eve 1999 when they tried to link arms to sing Auld Lang Syne.
However, those who observed the relationship said there was never really a close bond, although Blair, whose party became riven by faction, noted that there was “nothing” he could not say to Queen Elizabeth because of the absolute trust between them. “The one thing you know,” he said, “is that she will never divulge anything to anyone.”
(born 1951; served 2007-10)
Brown also lacked a close bond with Queen Elizabeth, instead having a strictly formal relationship. Apart from a shared Scottish heritage they had little in common. However, she was impressed by his hard work, decency and good faith, and she broke with tradition by inviting him to bring his wife and their two sons with him to his farewell audience in 2010.
While prime minister, Brown had sought to limit the Royal Prerogative by making the right to declare war something that would require parliamentary approval: he left office before this could happen.
(born 1966; served 2010-16)
Cameron was related to the Royal family, descending from a bastard of King William IV. His decision to introduce a Fixed-term Parliaments Act had a profound effect on the monarch’s prerogative (exercised on the prime minister’s advice) to dissolve parliament: it is not yet known what Queen Elizabeth thought.
Courtiers believed she was unhappy that he allowed a referendum on Scottish independence, and later it was announced that she felt “displeasure” that he had hinted about her relief that the Scots voted to maintain the Union by saying she “purred down the line” when the result was announced. He had asked her to give her support to the Union in the referendum; but she could not take sides, and would go no further than to say the Scots should “think carefully about the future” before voting. No word of any annoyance at the 2016 EU referendum or its outcome ever surfaced, by contrast.
There was no closeness between the Queen and Cameron, and he wrote about his visits to Balmoral in his memoirs in a way that some considered a serious breach of protocol.
(born 1956; served 2016-19)
May is reported to have engendered respect and affection in Queen Elizabeth for her dedication to duty and for her hard work, even if her premiership ended ultimately in failure and her removal by her own party. May was felt to be scrupulous in her duties towards the monarch and to be more assiduous in face-to-face audiences than her recent predecessors; and for her part, the Queen was said to look forward to their weekly meetings and to the woman-to-woman conversations.
May was by nature a reserved and solitary figure, finding it hard to trust colleagues with her most private thoughts and fears: the Queen provided such a trusted colleague for her, which May’s colleagues felt sealed their relationship.
(born 1964; served 2019-22)
The relations of Boris Johnson with Queen Elizabeth are harder to discern: he has yet to write his memoirs and no biographer has yet been able to research this question. Courtiers did, however, express a negative perception of him on two occasions. They accused him of having misled the Queen about the reasons for a prorogation of Parliament in the autumn of 2019 when the Government was trying to complete Brexit. And courtiers also said that “eyebrows were raised” by his conduct at the 2021 G7 summit, which Britain hosted in Cornwall. Some members of the Royal family felt his casualness was disrespectful towards other heads of state and of government, and caused embarrassment. One courtier, when asked how Queen Elizabeth coped with such an atypical prime minister, replied that “she simply shrugs her shoulders”.
He was forced out of office after 56 members of the government resigned having lost confidence in him, and went to Balmoral to resign two days before Her late Majesty’s death.
(born 1975: served 2022-)
Truss followed Johnson to Balmoral on 6 September 2022 and was asked to form a government. It was the late Queen’s last public engagement. She died two days later. In a statement on the evening of the late Queen’s death, Truss described her as having been an inspiration to her. She is now the first prime minister in the reign of King Charles III.
We rely on advertising to help fund our award-winning journalism.
We urge you to turn off your ad blocker for The Telegraph website so that you can continue to access our quality content in the future.
Thank you for your support.
Visit our adblocking instructions page.