Yes, Prime Ministers!

By Rentoul, John | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), January 27, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Yes, Prime Ministers!


Rentoul, John, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Helen Mirren is about to reprise her Oscar-winning role as Elizabeth II in 'The Audience', a play by Peter Morgan, screenwriter of 'The Queen'. It opens in London next month. Her Majesty has seen 12 prime ministers come and go over 60 years, and the play promises to 'break the contract of silence' of her weekly audiences with each of them, from Churchill to the present day. John Rentoul offers a preview

Winston Churchill 1952-55

She was 25. He was 77 and treated her with elaborate gallantry. Her first decision was what her surname was (Windsor, rather than Mountbatten); her last of his government was who his successor should be. (Everyone assumed it would be Eden, so she asked him.)

Tricky moment: Should she suggest that Churchill stand down on grounds of illness? (She rather thought she would not.)

Anthony Eden 1955-57

Outwardly dashing and courtly, he turned out to be surprisingly stiff and formal. He was 57 when he finally became prime minister. He had been described as a future prime minister ever since he served as foreign secretary in the 1930s - even longer than Gordon Brown. He was the first divorced PM, which was a big deal then.

Tricky moment: Suez: she knew all about Eden's secret deals but could do nothing about them.

Harold Macmillan 1957-63

She was 30 when another old man - Macmillan was 60 - "emerged" from the aristocratic wing of the Tory party. He pursued a "chivalrous fantasy", according to Ben Pimlott's biography, The Queen. "Supermac" wrote long "obsequious" memos and received "friendly and informal" replies.

Tricky moment: The "wind of change" meant colonies becoming independent, and South Africa leaving the Commonwealth.

Alec Douglas-Home 1963-64

Dry as a matchstick, but with an equally dry wit. He was the closest to the Queen in background, interests and temperament of all her prime ministers. A family friend of the Bowes-Lyonses who renounced his earldom. But he wasn't around long.

Tricky moment: Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, confessed in 1963 to being the "fourth man" of a Soviet spy ring, which was revealed to the public in 1979.

Harold Wilson 1964-70, 1974-76

She had little in common with the wily socialist. "He behaved towards her - unexpectedly - as an equal," wrote Pimlott. Their ages were closer: he was 48, she was 38. She was "flattered by his eagerness to take her into his confidence", and their audiences grew longer, which was noted with interest by the royal household. Wilson invented life peerages, ending the creation of new hereditary peers, which changed the royal ecosystem.

Tricky moment: Rhodesia declared itself independent in the name of the Queen.

Edward Heath 1970-74

"Gallantry was not Heath's style," said Pimlott. "He could be abrupt to the point of rudeness, and had no small talk." Nor did he see the need to win favour. "She was never comfortable with him," said a former courtier. He had no interest in the Commonwealth and didn't see a role for her in foreign affairs.

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