The relationship between the Monarch and their Prime Ministers is underpinned by a quietly pivotal meeting, known as the audience, whereby the head of state and their Prime Minister meet each week for a private conversation to discuss the affairs of state.
Successive Prime Ministers have remarked on how much they valued this convention.
Harold Macmillan noted in his diary that at his first audience, he had warned the Queen "half in joke, half in earnest, that I could not answer for the new government lasting more than six weeks. She smilingly reminded me of this at an audience six years later". Macmillan found that "the Queen was a great support, because she is the one person you can talk to."
Similarly, Edward Heath found his weekly audience with the Queen to be an occasion that he “looked forward to … It was always a relief to be able to discuss everything with someone, knowing full well that there was not the slightest danger of any information leaking. I could confide in Her Majesty absolutely.”
Theresa May reflected on her audiences: “These were not meetings with a high and mighty Monarch but a conversation, with a woman of experience and knowledge and immense wisdom. They were also the one meeting I went to which I knew would not be briefed out to the media. … What made those audiences so special was the understanding that the Queen had of issues, which came from the work she put into her red boxes, combined with her years of experience. She knew many of the world leaders, in some cases she had known their fathers and she was a wise and adroit judge of people. The conversations at the audiences were special.”
Lord O’Donnell, as a former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, formed one side of the ‘Golden Triangle’ along with the Private Secretary to the Sovereign and Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. As such he had close insights into how the audiences worked.
“[Prime Ministers] all found it incredibly helpful,” he said. “It was in a sense a therapy session. There aren’t many times a Prime Minister can have a really honest conversation about all the really tricky things that are going on with somebody else and know that it won’t leak. I think that was a source of great strength and I think Prime Ministers found it incredibly useful.”