The Queen and Her Prime Ministers: a Platinum Jubilee Review

When Margaret Thatcher arrived for her first audience at Buckingham Palace in 1979, she discovered to her horror that she and her monarch were wearing identical blue dresses. On her return to Downing Street, the first woman Prime Minister instructed her staff to telephone the Palace and devise some means of avoiding such a sartorial clash in future. ‘The Queen,’ a courtier replied with icy hauteur, ‘never notices what her Prime Minister is wearing.’

The regular Tuesday evening audiences are the Queen’s principal method of keeping in touch with what her government is up to (although one can be sure that she has her own bush telegraph!). Monarch and Prime Minister are entirely alone; even their Private Secretaries retire to another room to drink sherry and chew the fat of state. Prime Ministers can unburden themselves freely to a listener who has no political axe to grind, and the conversations remain entirely confidential and wholly unreported.

If a Prime Minister ‘advises’ the Queen to take a certain decision or course of action, she is obliged to follow that advice; the monarch acts only on the advice of ministers. According to the great Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot, the only rights the monarch enjoys under her ministers are the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn.

See also: The Queen and her Commonwealth on the Platinum Jubilee

Theoretically, she also still retains the vestigial right to choose a Prime Minister, but after some embarrassing and awkward moments earlier in her reign, even that right has all but been eroded.

After a reign of 70 years, and a procession of 14 Prime Ministers, the Queen has acquired a greater store of political knowledge and wisdom than perhaps any of them, whose length of career is at the mercy of fickle voters. Whatever the political stripe of the government of the day, the Queen can be expected to act with constitutional correctness at the Tuesday audiences, although there have been a handful of occasions during the reign when politicians have questioned her propriety.

What does alter, and what gives life to her relations with her governments, is the kind of personal rapport that the monarch strikes up with her chief Minister of the day. Her relationships have, to say the very least, been highly varied, and by no means all of her Prime Ministers have followed Disraeli’s dictum that, when it comes to flattering royalty, the flattery should be laid on with a trowel.

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