Elizabeth II and her prime ministers
She laughed with Winston Churchill, was "correct but cool" with Edward Heath and declined the offer to call Blair 'Tony'. A total of 15 prime ministers resided in Downing Street during Elizabeth II's reign, and their weekly meetings ranged from fun to fractious. Francis Beckett recounts the premiers' relationships with a queen who had seen it all...
Who were the prime ministers during Elizabeth II's reign?
Winston Churchill (1952–55)
Churchill, the wartime premier, lost the 1945 general election but returned to Downing Street in 1951, so when Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, the 77-year-old statesman was her first prime minister – and, some believe, her favourite.
They enjoyed their weekly meetings, laughed a lot, and bonded over a shared interest in horses and racing. The meetings grew from 30 minutes to two hours. Churchill had great respect for the monarchy, and what the politician Roy Jenkins called “near idolatry” for Queen Elizabeth II.
Soon after her coronation, her prime minister had a stroke. When they next met, he told her the truth, which he had hidden from his cabinet colleagues: that he could not be sure if he could go on until he knew whether he could command the Conservative conference and then parliament.
Elizabeth then invited the Churchills to join her to watch the St Leger and go by royal train to Balmoral. Churchill went and enjoyed himself enormously; it seems to have contributed to his recovery.
Anthony Eden (1955–57)
Eden’s health was irredeemably compromised by a botched operation two years before he became premier, and he was irascible and micro-managed his ministers. His premiership ended with the disastrous Suez invasion and a health breakdown.
When he went to see the Queen to be formally appointed prime minister, the two sat around talking of this and that, until Eden thought she wasn’t going to ask him to form a government at all – according to Eden’s wife Clarissa. So he said: “Well, Ma’am?” and she said: “I suppose I ought to be asking you to form a government.”
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He found her easy to talk to and to confide in. The Queen found him a sympathetic listener too, and much talk during their early meetings was about Princess Margaret’s possible marriage to the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. But it is thought she was strongly opposed to Eden’s ill-fated Suez adventure, and it made her doubt her prime minister’s judgement.
Harold Macmillan (1957–63)
When Macmillan became prime minister after the Suez debacle, the Conservative party was bitterly divided and he told the Queen his government might not last six weeks. She reminded him of that when he finally resigned, six successful years later.
When he kissed hands she was “gracious, but brief” according to Macmillan’s diaries, but he valued her grasp of foreign affairs: “She showed, as her father used to, an uncanny knowledge of details and personalities. She must read the telegrams very carefully.” She loved his talent for political gossip.
But he may have led her into a constitutional error. He wanted to be succeeded by Lord Home and apparently persuaded the Queen to exercise her royal prerogative. An early draft letter to her is revealing: “Lord Home is clearly a man who represents the old, governing class at its best and those who take a reasonably impartial view of English history know how good that can be….” She sent for Home, who would not have been the cabinet’s choice.
Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64)
Lord Home renounced his peerage so that he could enter the House of Commons and become prime minister as plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He was from an old family of Scottish aristocrats, neighbours of the Queen’s mother’s family, the Bowes-Lyons. So he was the first of the Queen’s premiers to whom she was already close – a childhood friend of the Queen Mother. “She loved Alec – he was an old friend,” said one aide. “They talked about dogs and shooting together… they were the same sort of people.”
Home helped her name several royal horses over the years. According to historian DR Thorpe, when Home first went to Balmoral on a prime ministerial visit, he heard the sound of the Queen’s official bagpiper before breakfast – a sound he had not heard when simply visiting as an old friend – and he therefore suggested calling three foals ‘Blessed Relief’ [by] ‘Bagpipes’ [out of] ‘Earshot’.
Harold Wilson (1964–70 and 1974–76)
The first Labour prime minister for 13 years, Wilson wanted to get the protocol right, and wrote in his autobiography: “Contrary to all I had understood about the procedures, there was no formal kissing of hands.”
But he enjoyed his weekly meetings with the Queen. He said they were the only times when he could have a serious conversation, which would not be leaked, with somebody who wasn’t after his job. She enjoyed them too – after Churchill, Wilson may have been her favourite PM. They were fairly close in age, and Wilson was the first prime minister not to come from the traditional ruling class; the Queen was learning for the first time about people not in her social class. “Harold was very fond of her and she reciprocated it,” said Labour cabinet minister Barbara Castle. “He made her feel at ease [and] kept her well-informed.”
Royal biographer Robert Lacey says: “Wilson persuaded the Queen to drop a lot of stuffy protocol that had remained since Queen Victoria.”
Edward Heath (1970–74)
Edward Heath was the first Conservative leader to be elected by a ballot of the party’s MPs. He will be remembered as the prime minister who took Britain into the EEC.
Heath failed to charm the Queen and they had a difficult relationship. He was not good at small talk, and not always comfortable with women, and they held different views about the Commonwealth, to which she held a great attachment. Heath biographer John Campbell describes their relationship as “correct but cool”.
But Heath, like his predecessors, found her well-informed – she “is undoubtedly one of the best-informed people in the world”, he wrote. And the troubles in Northern Ireland brought them together. Heath records a meeting of despair with the Queen, where both contemplated with horror and tears what was happening there.
James Callaghan (1976–79)
Callaghan became prime minister after Wilson’s surprise resignation, and held on with a wafer-thin majority until he was swept away by the Thatcher landslide in 1979. What you get from the Queen, he said, is “friendliness but not friendship”.
The pair got on well and Callaghan was so careful about not betraying her confidence that he would not even tell the Queen’s private secretary what they talked about.
The Queen enjoyed his company. He once told her he was having trouble deciding about an issue, and before he could ask her opinion she told him: “That’s what you’re paid for.”
Harold Wilson noted that the Queen respected those who had served in the armed forces, and this made her relationship with Callaghan, who had been in the Royal Navy, more relaxed. He was the son of a seaman, brought up in poverty and socially conservative, all of which endeared him to her.
Margaret Thatcher (1979–90)
The Thatcher premiership marked the end of the postwar Attlee settlement and a major shift of wealth and power from the public to the private sectors.
You may have expected the Queen to feel close to her first woman premier and the one nearest to her in age. But their relationship was not always easy and the Queen was thought to be anxious at the human cost of Thatcherism. Biographer Charles Moore says Thatcher’s attitude was “compounded of constitutional correctness, old-fashioned deference and a certain unease, probably related to the fact that both were women, and neither had much experience of working with women at a high level”.
While other premiers enjoyed weekends at Balmoral, Thatcher saw them as interrupting her work. But the Queen did help to broker peace over the Falklands victory service, when church leaders wanted a service of reconciliation, which Thatcher thought betrayed the soldiers.
John Major (1990–97)
While John Major was dealing with the Gulf War and an economic downturn, hismonarch was coping with the estrangement and possible divorce of her son Charles. Their audiences are said to have been a bit like mutual support sessions, and she valued his private advice.
He has called her “compassionate, shrewd, well-informed, pragmatic and wise, with an unshakeable commitment to duty”. He says she “may well offer counsel – perhaps through well-directed questions – that any prime minister would be foolish not to consider with care. All of them soon learn that the Queen, far from being cut off from her people, is very much aware of the shifting tides of public opinion – indeed often ahead of it.”
Nonetheless, it was Major who took the decision that Britain could no longer afford the Royal Yacht Britannia (a decision often wrongly attributed to Tony Blair). The Queen regretted this, believing the yacht had enabled her to visit the smaller, more remote Commonwealth countries.
Tony Blair (1997–2007)
Tony Blair won Labour’s biggest ever majority and became the party’s longest-serving prime minister. Yet his name now tends to be mostly associated with the decision to go to war in Iraq.
He was born just a month before the Queen was crowned in 1953. He was a man of a new generation and his advice on the Queen’s family problems was less appreciated than his predecessor John Major’s had been. Blair recalled his first audience. “She was… direct. ‘You are my 10th prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.’ I got a sense of my relative seniority, or lack of it.” She declined his invitation to call him Tony.
When Princess Diana died, neither the Spencer family nor the royal family wanted a big funeral, but Blair believed there was a public demand for it, and insisted the royal family needed to mourn publicly. When the Queen Mother died in 2002, the palace took steps to prevent Blair taking over her funeral in the way that he had with Diana’s.
The Queen was, though, a good source of advice for Blair. He once asked her about another head of state, saying: “I’m really struggling to get on with him.” She replied: “Try cricket, that’s his subject.’”
Gordon Brown (2007–10)
As a Scot and a son of the Manse (a Scottish minister), Gordon Brown was someone that the Queen felt she understood.
Brown’s brief premiership ended in electoral defeat in May 2010, and the Queen was among the millions who watched television pictures of the prime minister walking out of Downing Street with his wife and two young children. A discreet telephone call was made, and Brown’s final audience with the Queen took place with his sons and wife Sarah by his side. It was the first time in the Queen’s reign that any departing prime ministers had met with her while accompanied by their children.
David Cameron (2010–2016)
David Cameron’s premiership marks a return of the old wealthy families to Downing Street, for the first time since Alec Douglas-Home. He and the Queen’s family go back a long way. Cameron attended an exclusive boarding school called Heatherdown (where the 100 boys came from the wealthiest and best-connected families in England) with Prince Edward. The Heatherdown production of Toad of Toad Hall featured Cameron as Harold Rabbit and Edward as Mole. They are even distantly related. Cameron is a direct descendant of King William IV, the Queen’s great-great-great-great-uncle.
Yet their relationship has had its ups and downs. The morning in 2014 that the polls indicated that Scotland might vote for independence, Cameron was staying with the Queen in Balmoral, and the atmosphere over breakfast was said to have been frosty. It has also been reported that, later that day, Cameron told cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to work out with the palace a way that the Queen might intervene, and the result was the apparently spontaneous: “I hope people will think very carefully,” as Her Majesty left church that Sunday.
Editorial note: this article predates the terms of Teresa May (2016–2019); Boris Johnson (2019–2022) and Liz Truss (September 2022)
This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's 'Queen Elizabeth: 90 Glorious Years' bookazine