survivor: Elizabeth with six of her PMs, all now deceased
Never was any constitutional monarch more observant of the limitations of her role. She was acutely aware of the paradox: that her authority lay in her refusal to exercise power.
Part of the reason for her success is that she generally had good relations with all 14 of her Prime Ministers. They valued her discretion and wise advice based on her long years of experience.
David Cameron was deeply impressed at the informed interest she took in all matters of her realm, recalling that “when discussing foreign affairs or politics, she never seemed to be bored or tired of them”.
Harold Wilson said that she was the only person he could speak frankly to without the information being leaked. Wilson was the Queen’s fourth Prime Minister and the first to hail from the working class.
The first, Winston Churchill, was from a very different background. Born at Blenheim Palace into the aristocracy, he had been a brave cavalry officer during the reign of Elizabeth II’s great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
MENTOR: Churchill guided the young Queen, pictured here in 1954 with Charles and Anne
Aged 77 when she ascended the throne in 1952, he was in the twilight of his magnificent career, but she gave him a new lease of life, not only because his innate romanticism was captivated by her regal elegance but also because he saw himself as her constitutional mentor.
Despite the age difference, there was a deep rapport between them, partly as a result of their shared love of horse racing.
The mutual warmth shone through their audiences, as the Queen’s secretary Tommy Lascelles later recalled: “I could not hear what they talked about, but it was normally punctuated by peels of laughter.”
Once, when asked which Prime Minister she most enjoyed meeting, she replied, “Winston, of course, because it was always such fun.”
As a symbol of her affection, she attended his retirement dinner in Downing Street in April 1955 as guest of honour, a unique tribute to a commoner.
She also offered him the title of Duke of London, but he refused, not wanting to hinder the political careers of his descendants.
Churchill was succeeded by Sir Anthony Eden, heir to the Tory crown since the war. But by 1955 he was a sick man, due to a botched stomach operation and the heavy medication he needed to alleviate the pain.
Elizabeth soon came to doubt Sir Anthony’s judgement during the Suez crisis, the humiliation that brought him down.
He was replaced by the wily Harold Macmillan, the former Chancellor.
Initially, the Queen’s audiences with him were “rather difficult”, to use his phrase, but he began the practice of sending her the agenda in advance, which helped the conversation to flow.
Over the six years of his premiership, a deep respect developed between them.
For his part, he was struck by her personal courage on tour to strife-torn regions, and her “uncanny knowledge of details and personalities”, which demonstrated that she “read the telegrams very carefully”.
When he stood down as Prime Minister in 1963 due to illness, she could not conceal her sorrow, tears filling her eyes as she held her final audience with him at his hospital bed.
Again, the Tories’ “Magic Circle” of grandees went to work, and on this occasion their surprise choice for leader was the 14th Earl of Home.
He had to give up his peerage and win a Commons seat as Alec Douglas-Home, for by 1963 it was a firm constitutional convention that the Prime Minister had to be an MP.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979
Despite the controversial backdrop to his elevation to Number 10, Douglas-Home had the advantage over all the other 14 premiers of her reign that he was actually a personal friend of Elizabeth II, since his Scottish estate bordered that of the Queen Mother’s family.
“She loved Alec. They talked about dogs and shooting together. They were the same sort of people,” recalled one aide. But he was only Prime Minister for nine months, losing the 1964 election to Harold Wilson, who soon established “a relaxed intimacy” with the Queen.
“Harold was very fond of her and she reciprocated,” recalled Wilson’s Cabinet colleague Barbara Castle, though the Queen kept him on his toes. He once confessed that he felt like an errant schoolboy who had not done his homework when she cited a Government document he had not read.
Relations were more strained with Ted Heath, Tory victor of the 1970 General Election and a man of titanic social awkwardness, the distance between them made all the greater by his preference for the European Community over her beloved Commonwealth, though Heath admired the breadth of her political knowledge.
Heath’s defeat in the February 1974 election led to the return of Wilson at the head of a minority government, the only occasion in her reign when a Prime Minister has regained office.
Exhausted by internal rows and 13 years of leadership, and paranoid about secret service plots against him, Wilson resigned suddenly in March 1976.
He was succeeded by the avuncular Jim Callaghan, a Labour traditionalist who was admired by the Queen for his naval war service. Despite the desperate economic circumstances of the time, they had a warm relationship and Callaghan was delighted to preside over the Silver Jubilee of 1977.
In contrast, there was a degree of frostiness when Margaret Thatcher arrived in No 10 two years later. This was partly the result of the Prime Minister’s surprising nervousness in front of the Queen, combined with her tendency to be strident.
“She sat on the edge of her chair and produced from her bag an agenda from which she launched forthwith,” explained her biographer Charles Moore.
But there were also political differences. Mrs Thatcher relished confrontation. The Queen preferred consensus.
Amid conflict arising from the miners’ strike and Britain’s approach to the South African apartheid regime, this tension exploded in 1985 in the only public dispute of her reign, when her Palace press officer Michael Shea briefed the Sunday Times about the Queen’s dismay at Mrs Thatcher’s “uncaring” policies.
Mrs Thatcher was aggrieved and the Palace subsequently apologised to her. Yet the rift should not be exaggerated. The Queen’s respect for Mrs Thatcher’s pioneering achievements was reflected in her award of both the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit to her former Prime Minister, as well as her attendance at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral in 2013.
LESS LUCKY: Theresa May failed to consult the Queen on Brexit
John Major, a far more emollient figure than his predecessor, helped Elizabeth through the “annus horribilis” of 1992 and she came to rely on his advice, just as he found her an invaluable support when his Cabinet was gripped by turmoil. He once described her as “compassionate, shrewd, well-informed and wise”.
Relations were more difficult with Tony Blair, whose modernising impulses often conflicted with royal tradition, such as his Government’s decision to decommission the Royal Yacht Britannia. A newspaper report in 2007, his last year in office, claimed the Queen was “exasperated and frustrated” by his policies, especially on defence, while he notoriously described his first weekend at Balmoral as “freaky”.
But Blair, well attuned to public opinion after his 1997 landslide, proved a candid and wise counsellor in the turbulent week after Diana’s death, guiding the Crown through one of its greatest modern crises. In 2021 she made him a Knight of the Garter, an award that was her own personal gift.
With his moral earnestness and his sense of deference to the Queen, Gordon Brown had better relations with her than Blair during his brief spell in No10. When he left office in 2010, she insisted that he bring his wife Sarah and their children to his final audience, the first time that a departing Prime Minister had been accompanied by his family.
As a descendant of William IV, David Cameron was a distant relative of the Queen, which may have accounted for their smooth relationship. He was also lucky in presiding over some of the happiest moments of her reign, including the Diamond Jubilee, the wedding of William and Kate, and the 2012 Olympics.
ROLLERCOASTER: Boris and the Queen
Theresa May’s sense of duty and Christian faith should have appealed to the Queen, but her icy personality lacked Cameron’s easy charm and her relations with the Palace were awkward. The Queen was also said to be irritated by Mrs May’s reluctance to consult her about her ill-fated plans for Brexit.
It was the issue that led to her replacement in 2019 by Boris Johnson, whose time in charge has exploded with controversy, though his link to the Palace has generally been cordial.
He was widely praised for his eulogy in the Commons to Prince Philip, while the Queen showed her affection by inviting Boris, Carrie and their new son Wilfred to Balmoral in 2021.
But there have been low points, like his decision to ask her to prorogue Parliament in the autumn of 2019, a move that was later declared illegal by the Supreme Court.
“She should never have been put in that position. It was a disgrace,” said the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy.
The Downing Street party, held in defiance of lockdown rules, on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral would not have gone down well either. But for the moment Johnson survives in office, the most colourful of all her Prime Ministers.