It was almost 3pm on Friday 4 May 1979, and at Conservative Central Office Margaret Thatcher was waiting for the most important call of her life. At last the phone rang. It was Buckingham Palace. Was she free to come and see Her Majesty?
A few minutes later, a trim figure in royal blue, almost dwarfed by the crowd of photographers and supporters, pushed her way through to the car outside. On television, as cameras tracked its progress towards the palace, the BBC’s Robin Day marvelled at the novelty of a woman prime minister. Then the car eased through the great palace gates… and the rest is, more or less, a mystery.
Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II has always fascinated their biographers. The Grantham grammar-school girl was the Queen’s eighth prime minister, and by far the most unusual. All her previous premiers had been men, and they had roughly fallen into two groups. First, there were the upper-class, old-fashioned Tories, such as Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Anthony Eden, her first premiers. Then there were the two Labour men, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan: socialists in theory, but deeply patriotic, even socially conservative in practice.
When did Thatcher come to power?
Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first ever woman prime minister on 4 May 1979.
She was prime minister for 11 years, leading the Conservatives to three general election victories, before resigning in 1990.
Her 11-year premiership is widely regarded as one of the most radical in modern British history.
Read more about her premiership and legacy.
But Mrs Thatcher was different. She saw herself as a radical, a moderniser, dragging Britain kicking and screaming into the 1980s. She had promised to overhaul the paternalistic settlement that had governed Britain’s political and economic life for the past 40 years – the consensus of which the Queen herself, with her annual monologues about duty and service, had become a living symbol. And while previous Conservative prime ministers had often been seen as representatives of the upper-class establishment, Mrs Thatcher, who described herself as a “plain, straightforward provincial”, regarded the establishment as the enemy.
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“The only woman in the room”
The paradox, however, was that this instinctive populist was also a dewy-eyed monarchist, who told an interviewer that she would have been a ‘Cavalier’ in the Civil War, and she treated the Queen with such exaggerated deference that her low curtsies became a palace joke. On top of that, there was also an unusual personal dimension. Both the Queen and her prime minister were used to being the only woman in the room. Mrs Thatcher was not above a little discreet flirting with some of her male colleagues. But dealing with another woman was something else entirely.
Neither the Queen nor her new prime minister ever spoke publicly about the relationship. Later, the biographer Charles Moore described the awkwardness of their weekly Tuesday audiences, with Mrs Thatcher sitting nervously on the edge of her chair. People often imagined that she spent the time haranguing the Queen about economic policy. In reality, writes Moore, “what she said was usually an anodyne recitation of current business”, to which the Queen said virtually nothing. In other words, most of their meetings were probably immensely boring.
Which issues did Thatcher and the Queen disagree on?
Beneath the surface, though, there were certainly tensions. Since her accession in 1952, the Queen had always been devoted to the principle of national unity. Yet within two years of Mrs Thatcher’s arrival, Britain seemed more divided than ever. A devastating recession threw at least 3 million people out of work. Shocking riots erupted in Bristol, Brixton and Toxteth. In Belfast, Bobby Sands led a hunger strike of Irish republican prisoners; at home, the spectre of homelessness began to haunt towns across the country.
Any semblance of national consensus, in other words, was rapidly disintegrating. Yet instead of changing course, as her predecessors might have done, Mrs Thatcher insisted that she was “not for turning”. Consensus, she said scornfully, was merely “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”
Did the Queen ever express disquiet? Did she ever ask her prime minister to rethink her policies? It seems very unlikely. Elizabeth II’s entire persona, after all, is based on betraying no hint of her private political feelings. And although writers and filmmakers often love to paint the monarch as a secret Thatcher critic, they forget one crucial point. In the government’s first term the most plausible electoral alternative was not a return to the cosy status quo. It was an abrupt turn to the left under Michael Foot’s Labour Party, which would have brought immediate withdrawal from the European Common Market, possible withdrawal from NATO, massive nationalisation, a siege economy and the abolition of the House of Lords. Whatever the Queen thought of Thatcherism, it’s hard to believe she would found such an alternative more appealing.
Hints of disquiet
So it was only in the second half of Mrs Thatcher’s 11-year premiership, when the alternatives seemed less radical, that there were real hints of disquiet. By 1986 it was well known that the Queen was upset about the rifts within the Commonwealth, with Britain frequently standing alone in its refusal to contemplate sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa.
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On 20 July 1986, the Sunday Times ran an extraordinary scoop: a front-page story claiming that the Queen privately felt Mrs Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”. The source was the palace press secretary, Michael Shea, but the Queen herself was mortified. She rang Mrs Thatcher immediately to apologise, and the relationship survived. But her prime minister did not forget it. “Those little old ladies will say Mrs Thatcher is upsetting the Queen,” she told one adviser. “I’ll lose votes.”
She never did lose votes, though. And although the two women never became friends, the fact that the monarch attended Mrs Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral in 2013 tells its own story. Whatever Elizabeth II might have thought of her first woman prime minister, she could not deny that Thatcher won three consecutive elections, served for a record-breaking 11 years and left the political and economic landscape utterly transformed. And as a woman herself, she could not fail to respect the achievement of the first working mother elected to govern her country – even if it might sometimes have pained her to admit it.
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Dominic Sandbrook is a historian who has written widely on postwar Britain and has made several BBC documentaries. His latest book is Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019), which tells the story of the years of Margaret Thatcher’s first administration in the early 1980s