In the first of our two-part Jubilee coverage, we shine a spotlight on the Queen's Premiers
It is the most important constitutional relationship in the United Kingdom and, during her incredible reign, the Queen has witnessed 14 Prime Ministers.
From Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, how has the dynamic of the relationship changed over the years?
And, are Prime Ministers really Her Majesty’s friend or foe? Steve Cain has all the answers.
The first of her PM's
Winston Churchill, Conservative (1951-55) – When the Queen came to the throne 70 years ago, there was already a Prime Minister in office – Winston Churchill. Although he offered a steady hand to help her find her feet during the early years of her reign, the young Queen also knew her own mind and they had their differences.
In 1953, she was firm in her decision to televise her Coronation ceremony, despite Churchill’s objection. They also differed on the future of Britain’s role in the world; Churchill wanted to retain Britain’s global supremacy, by force if necessary, while Elizabeth favoured a confederation of states – the Commonwealth.
However, there was mutual respect and fondness between the pair and it is reported that their meetings were “punctuated with peals of laughter.”
Anthony Eden, Conservative (1955-57) – The relationship between the Queen and “the starchy Sir Anthony Eden” was said to be more formal than the one shared with Churchill. His tenure was marred by the Suez crisis, in which British forces were forced to withdraw from Egypt.
Harold Macmillan, Conservative (1957-63) – He had a reverence for the monarchy, which stood him in good stead with the Queen, and there was a friendlier atmosphere between the two than there was with Eden.
Although their meetings were always respectful, both enjoyed political gossip.
Alec Douglas-Home, Conservative (1963-64) – A shared love of dogs, outdoor pursuits and countryside life ensured that Sir Alec Douglas-Home met with the sovereign’s approval.
First Labour PM for Queen
Harold Wilson, Labour (1964-70 & 1974-76) – The Queen’s first Labour Prime Minister was, initially, cause for concern. Supposedly a “leftie” with plans for a social revolution, Wilson was actually quite a monarchist.
Apparently, “they got on like a house on fire” and their audiences became longer and longer, with the Queen enjoying a gin and Wilson a brandy at the end of each meeting.
Not good at small talk
Edward Heath, Conservative (1970-74) – Heath was reportedly not particularly good at either small talk or dealing with women, and this meant he failed to make a positive impact on the Queen. Their weekly audiences were described as “frosty.”
James Callaghan, Labour (1976-79) – Callaghan enjoyed a relaxed relationship with the Queen. However, he was Prime Minister during a time of political turmoil and his government was, ultimately, brought down by numerous strikes and industrial unrest.
Queen referred Thatcher as "That woman"
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative (1979-90) – Britain’s first female Prime Minister also turned out to be the Queen’s longest-serving PM.
Although Thatcher was said to deeply respect the Queen she wanted to introduce dramatic social reforms, some of which the Queen expressed concern over. Allegedly, the Queen referred to Thatcher as “that woman” and found her policies to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive.”
But, as time passed, the relationship between the two women improved significantly and the Queen was said to be “very upset” by the way the Conservative Party deposed Thatcher.
Queens turbulent "annus horribilis" years
John Major, Conservative (1990-97) – Major was Prime Minister during a very turbulent and difficult period for the monarchy. By far the worst year of the Queen’s reign was 1992 and she dubbed it her “annus horribilis.”
First, three of her four children’s marriages fell apart then, in November, her beloved Windsor Castle went up in flames. Major was fond of the Queen and offered his support, implementing unprecedented changes to keep the public on side.
A new financial settlement was negotiated between the Royal Family, and the government which saw the Queen and Prince Philip start paying income tax and Buckingham Palace being opened to the public.
Tony Blair, Labour (1997-2007) – New Labour’s love of informality, modernisation and “spin” concerned the Queen and her relationship with Blair began with a degree of suspicion.
Matters were made worse when, only three months into his role, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash while the Queen was on holiday at Balmoral. Blair seized the opportunity to lead the nation’s grief in the monarch’s absence and referred to Diana as “the People’s Princess”. The Queen felt that this characterisation was unfair, turning Diana into an icon and alienating Elizabeth from her subjects.
Gordon Brown, Labour (2007-10) – Although his rough-hewn manner contrasted with Blair’s smoothness, Brown was reported to have had a good but formal relationship with the Queen. However, his government was hapless and, after only three years, he was out.
David Cameron, Conservative (2010-16) – Cameron’s tenure was defined by the future identity of the United Kingdom, both nationally and internationally.
Following the result of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, which saw Scotland decide to remain part of the UK, Cameron made an unguarded comment about the Queen’s reaction to the result, saying “she purred down the line.”
He apologised to the Queen for the misdemeanour. In June 2016, a wafer-thin majority of 52 per cent of Britain’s voted to leave the European Union and Cameron, who was in favour of remaining and hadn’t expected to be defeated, resigned.
Theresa May, Conservative (2016-19) – Charged with the difficult task of making Brexit happen, the Queen’s second female Prime Minister had an unenviable task.
Good working relationship
May had a good working relationship with the monarch, and the Queen is said to have looked forward to their weekly meetings. Ultimately, though, Brexit derailed May’s tenure and the Queen was “sad” to see her go.
Rocky start for Boris
Boris Johnson, Conservative (2019 onwards) – Johnson’s relationship with the Queen got off to a rocky start when he asked her to prorogue parliament – a decision that the Supreme Court ruled unlawful. He apologised to the Queen.
More recently, he was found guilty of breaking the law and received a £50 Fixed Penalty Notice for attending a party to celebrate his birthday in June 2020, while indoor social gatherings were banned due to COVID-19.
This was just one of a number of social gatherings that took place in and around Downing Street during lockdown, with two even being held on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021.
Downing Street issued an apology to the Queen, saying it was “deeply regrettable” that the events took place during “a time of national mourning.”