For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive. From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.In April 2013 Helen Mirren was awarded best actress at the Laurence Olivier Awards for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience. After the 2006 film, The Queen, also scripted by Morgan, she received numerous awards for playing the same part.
I didn’t see the play, but can’t help thinking that the key word in the description above is “imagines”. The confidentiality of these meetings allows a dramatist considerable scope in providing an evening’s entertainment, but one has to wonder if the audience will go home much the wiser. As far as I know, British Prime Ministers’ memoirs all conform to the rules of omertà on the subject. For example, almost at the start of The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher tells her readers:
The Audience at which one receives the Queen's authority to form a government comes to most prime ministers only once in a lifetime. The authority is unbroken when a sitting prime minister wins an .election, and so it never had to be renewed throughout the years I was in office. All audiences with the Queen take place in strict confidence - a confidentiality which is vital to the working of both government and constitution. I was to have such audiences with Her Majesty once a week, usually on a Tuesday, when she was in London and sometimes elsewhere when the royal family were at Windsor or Balmoral.
Perhaps it is permissible to make just two points about these meetings. Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience. And, although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, especially on Commonwealth affairs, I always found the Queen's attitude towards the work of the government absolutely correct.
Of course, under the circumstances, stories of clashes between 'two powerful women' were just too good not to make up. In general, more nonsense was written about the so-called 'feminine factor' during my time in office than about almost anything else. I was always asked how it felt to be a woman prime minister. I would reply: 'I don't know: I've never experienced the alternative.''
After the audience, Sir Philip Moore, the Queen's Secretary, took me to his office down what are called 'the Prime Minister's stairs'. … (pages 17,18)18 years later, one of Thatcher’s successors had his first audience:
… I practically fell upon the Queen's hands, not so much brushing as enveloping them. I recovered sufficiently to find myself sitting opposite her. I had met her before, of course, but this was different. It was my first audience. There is much to say about the Queen. At this encounter, I noticed two things: she was quite shy, strangely so for someone of her experience and position; and at the same time, direct. I don’t mean rude or insensitive, just direct. 'You are my tenth prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.' We talked for a time, not exactly small talk but general guff about the government programme, the conversation somewhat stilted. Then Cherie was brought in to pay her respects … (Tony Blair, A Journey, page 14)He notes at the time of his departure from office a decade later, the Queen’s being “as ever, very gracious” (page 662).
In the three volumes of Alastair Campbell’s diaries covering his years in Number 10 working for Blair, the ‘audience’ subject is indexed only in Volume 3, Power and Responsibility 1999-2001, with just the one entry of any real interest:
21 March 2001
… I tried to pick his [Blair’s] brains on whether the Queen was a hundred per cent happy at the way Prince Charles was piling in [on the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, see 5 March entry]. He was unbelievably discreet though, occasionally told the odd funny story about their meetings, but even with me, rarely let slip anything of substance from their discussions.It seems to me that the only thing that most of us can be sure of about these audiences is the identities of the participants and their ages. What would that tell us? Firstly, that it takes some effort to pull the information together, and my first attempt at presenting it led to the chart below. This shows the ages of Sovereigns and Prime Ministers since the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837.
Some points of interest across this period are:
1. Victoria was the youngest Sovereign, just over 18 at succession.
2. Elizabeth is the oldest, currently 87.
3. The oldest PM in office was Gladstone, 84 when he left in 1894.
4. The youngest PM in office was Cameron in 2010, at 43.
5. Between 1935 and 1937, Baldwin was PM to three different Kings. Data visualisation is fashionable, so it seems worth reflecting on the insignificance rendered to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 by this particular form of graphical presentation.
Also, 6. Until the 1960s, PMs were nearly all over 50 and most were over 60. There has, however, been a downward trend in their ages since Churchill left office in 1955. It seems unlikely that this trend will continue further, so it will either reverse, or PMs from now on will be in their 40s.
7. The biggest age difference, over 51 years, between Sovereign and PM was that between Elizabeth and Churchill from 1952 to 1955.
8. The Sovereign and PM closest in age were Elizabeth and Mrs Thatcher, the latter being six months older.
9. The biggest age difference between a Sovereign and a younger PM is that at present, 40 years.
Also, 10. From 1870 to 1936, the Sovereigns and PMs were close enough in age to be regarded as being of the same generation (except during the Rosebury administration of 1894/5). This applied again between 1964 and 1997 but not since.
Finally, what might the situation be in 2017? More confidently than for most predictions, it can be assumed that the Sovereign is likely to be as at present or Charles III or William V. But the PM? If the coalition’s economic policies turn out to be a success and the Conservatives win the next election, Cameron could still be PM or could have stood down. In the latter case, the bookies’ current favourite as next Tory leader is Theresa May. My view, not that I’ve bet on it, is that in those circumstances George Osborne would be well-placed to take the credit for the recovery and the leadership. However, the bookies’ favourite as next PM is Ed Miliband. For the age differences under these scenarios, see the Table below and draw the obvious conclusions about generational age differences, if you think these matter.
As for The Audience, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph thought it was magnificent and “persuasive”, while in the Observer, Susannah Clapp thought “Morgan's very entertaining play is a skinny thing, a string of sketches dependent on high-grade mimicry”. Robert Hardman, maker of the ITV documentary Our Queen, probably provided in the Daily Mail one of the best-informed reviews and concluded:
… what the Queen genuinely thinks of her Prime Ministers will be sheer guesswork for a long time to come until future historians are one day granted access to the diaries and papers of a sovereign who has listened to them all — and never leaked a thing.which rather assumes that there will be such access.
1. The dates of reigns, of prime ministerships and of birth come from Wikipedia.
2. On a few occasions in the Victorian period the country had to manage without a PM for a day or two – the rise of the British Empire doesn’t seem to have been interrupted. The gaps are not shown. 3. The age differences are those on 1 July each year – regrettably this restriction excludes the Russell administration of October 1885 to June 1886. Edward VIII’s brief reign is captured.
4. I hope that the inevitable errors are not significant. I am happy to correct any that are. The way Excel was used to handle dates was described in a previous post. The graphics were produced using PowerPoint and the alignments are not always exact.
UPDATE 19 DECEMBER 2013
According to an article by Chris Hastings in the Mail on Sunday on 15 December:
Theirs was a difficult relationship that has become the stuff of West End drama – and today The Mail on Sunday can reveal one possible source of the tension between The Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Official papers just made public show the Prime Minister repeatedly rescheduled and cancelled their weekly audiences, risking the irritation of Buckingham Palace. Even Mrs Thatcher’s own aides warned her of ‘pushing her luck’ and potentially ‘spoiling the relationship’ with the Palace over her requests to rearrange the meetings. …All credit to the MoS for its efforts:
Mrs Thatcher’s bids to rearrange the meetings are revealed in official papers declassified following a Freedom of Information request by The Mail on Sunday, and covering the three years after Mrs Thatcher took office in 1979.but Prime Ministers are very busy people, rather more so than constitutional monarchs, and this sort of thing may always be happening. There will almost certainly be further FOI requests for other PMs and, if so, we might learn more.