This is how well the Queen really got on with Prime Ministers - and how accurate The Crown got it

Friday, 20th November 2020, 12:02 pm
Updated Friday, 20th November 2020, 12:02 pm

At the ripe old age of 94, Queen Elizabeth II has had an audience with an astonishing number of Prime Ministers over the years.

From Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, throughout her reign the Queen has held a weekly meeting (called an “audience”) with Prime Ministers to discuss weekly matters.

These weekly meetings have been dramatised in all four seasons of hit Netflix series The Crown, giving audiences a glimpse into a practice that is - in real life - totally private, with no transcripts or recordings of meetings made.

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But how accurate are the relationships between prime ministers and the Queen depicted in The Crown - and did she have such a frosty relationship with Margaret Thatcher in real life?

Do the Queen’s “audiences” influence the prime minister’s decisions?

Officially, the Queen’s meetings with prime ministers are held in order to “discuss Government matters”.

While the Queen is obliged to remain politically neutral in the meetings, she is able to “advise and warn” prime ministers when she deems it necessary.

This means that while the Queen can make some comment on matters of government, she does not have the final say over any decisions made.

It is established convention for the Queen to support the government, and allow the elected prime minister to form a government in her name after election.

It is very rare for the Queen to make any public comment on politics, but in 2019 it was revealed that ex-Prime Minister David Cameron had asked the Queen’s private secretary whether the Queen might comment on the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum.

Shortly afterwards, the Queen said she hoped people would "think very carefully about the future" with regards to the referendum.

What were her relationships like with the UK’s prime ministers?

Though the Queen has to be neutral about any political matters - including her opinions on prime ministers - various sources over the years, including prime ministers themselves, have given an indication of their relationship with the monarch.

The Crown has dramatised many of these relationships; this is how accurate their portrayals have been.

Was the Queen close to Winston Churchill?

The first Prime Minister the Queen would meet with after ascending to the throne in 1952, Winston Churchill was said to share a very close relationship with the Monarch.

In season three of The Crown, we see Queen Elizabeth visit Winston Churchill shortly before his death, calling him her “guardian angel”.

While it’s difficult to establish whether the Queen did in fact visit Churchill shortly before his death, a number of sources report that the pair’s relationship was indeed very cordial.

The Queen’s Private Secretary Sir “Tommy” Lascelles, also depicted in early series of the Netflix show, wrote of their meetings:

“I could not hear what they talked about, but it was, more often than not, punctuated by peals of laughter, and Winston generally came out wiping his eyes.”

The Queen herself wrote to Churchill saying that no Prime Minister would again “be able to hold the place of my first prime minister to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful”.

After his death, the Queen broke custom by attending Churchill’s funeral in person, laying a wreath of white flowers with a message reading: “From the Nation and the Commonwealth. In grateful remembrance. Elizabeth R”.

Anthony Eden

Season two of The Crown covers the Suez Crisis of 1956 which ultimately led to the downfall of Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden.

While the Queen and Eden are reported to have had a cordial relationship, it’s been suggested that the Queen did not approve of the Prime Minister’s actions over Suez.

Shortly before his death in 1976, Eden commented of the Queen in an interview that he “would not claim she was pro-Suez”.

Additionally, Lord Charteris, one of the Queen’s private secretaries, said in 1994 that Suez gave the Queen a great deal of concern”, adding that “She was personally worried about it … I think it was the basic dishonesty of the whole thing [that] was a trouble”.

Harold McMillan

Not much is known about the relationship between Harold McMillan and the Monarch, though the former Prime Minister described her as “A great support, because she is the one person you can talk to”.

Harold Wilson

Though Sir Alex Douglas-Home was Prime Minister before Harold Wilson, Sir Douglas-Home did not feature in The Crown.

Instead, the next Prime Minister to feature is Harold Wilson, in season three.

Wilson would be the Queen’s first Labour Prime Minister, and in spite of their very different backgrounds, the pair are shown to get along well in The Crown - apparently an accurate depiction of their relationship.

It’s reported that the Queen took the unusual step of asking Wilson to stay for drinks following their first meeting, as well as allowing him to smoke his pipe.

Wilson was reported to keep a photo of the Queen in his wallet.

Edward Heath

Edward Heath does not feature very prominently in The Crown, and not too much is known about the relationship between the ex-Prime Minister and the Queen - though he apparently once fell asleep at a Royal dinner.

Margaret Thatcher

Season four of The Crown introduces the divisive Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, and it’s not long before tensions are apparent between the first female PM and the Queen.

“Fundamentally, the relationship between any PM and the Queen tends to be a secretive one, and there are amazingly few references to the Queen in Thatcher’s voluminous memoirs,” playwright Moira Buffini, who wrote the play Handbagged about Thatcher and the queen, told The Telegraph in 2013.

However, several sources suggest that the Queen and Margaret Thatcher did indeed butt heads.

Declassified files which were revealed in 2017 claim that Thatcher infuriated the Queen after defying Commonwealth leaders in a vote over apartheid which had backed tighter sanctions against South Africa.

A source from the palace said the Queen even considered scrapping her weekly meeting with Thatcher over the affair.

Though commentators have said that the “tests” conducted on the Thatchers by the Royal Family in The Crown are fictionalised, it’s reported that the PM did indeed dislike her annual visits to Balmoral, and usually had her bags packed quickly on the last day.