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What history tells us: The Monarch and their Prime Ministers

King Charles III Coronation: A new chapter in British history
Dr Michelle Clement

Lecturer at The Strand Group, King's Policy Institute, and researcher in residence at No.10 Downing Street

19 April 2023

Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-reigning Monarch in British history. This May, the UK will witness the first Coronation of a Monarch for 70 years. The then Prince Charles was just four when he attended his mother’s Coronation on 2 June 1953, the first to be televised.

King Charles III has already seen two Prime Ministers during his reign. When he acceded the throne on 8 September 2022, Prime Minister Liz Truss had been in office for two days. King Charles invited the new Leader of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak, to form a government on 25 October 2022; an historically uncommon quick turnover of the premiership .

King Charles was the longest-waiting heir apparent and as Prince of Wales he devoted a huge amount of time and attention to public advocacy of sustainability issues. As King thus far he has appeared to moderate such public advocacy, yet his propensity to modernise continues. Indeed we expect to see some changes in the forthcoming Coronation.

Queen Elizabeth II meets Sir Winston Churchill
Queen Elizabeth II with Sir Winston Churchill, her first Prime Minister. (Credit: UK Government)

Though many are eagerly waiting to find out how King Charles will compare to his predecessor, there are insights to be gleaned from the approach taken by Her late Majesty. During Queen Elizabeth’s seven-decade long reign, 15 individuals from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss 'kissed hands' with the Queen and thus became Prime Minister. And of those still with us today, very few will be old enough to remember the Coronation in 1953 – in fact Tony Blair was born only that same year; something the Queen remarked in their first audience: "You are my 10th Prime Minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born."

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.”

Queen Elizabeth II with former Prime Minister David Cameron
Queen Elizabeth II attending Cabinet for the first time, to mark her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.(Credit: UK Government)

Queen Elizabeth II’s reign provided a beacon of continuity over an extraordinary breadth of change. Though the Queen’s visits to No.10 Downing Street were somewhat infrequent, the discreet advice in the weekly audiences which she offered to 15 prime ministers over 70 years, based on her unrivalled institutional memory, was invaluable, and far more regular.

In Her late Majesty’s own words: “They unburden themselves or they tell me what’s going on or if they’ve got problems and sometimes one can help in that way too. They know one can be impartial … I think it’s rather nice to feel that one’s a sort of sponge and everybody can come and tell me things. … And occasionally you can be able to put one’s point of view which, perhaps they hadn’t seen it from that angle.”

We know little about King Charles III’s audiences with Prime Ministers Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak but it is clear that as heir apparent for 70-years during the Queen’s reign, much was absorbed and learnt. Indeed, former Prime Minister David Cameron explained that during his government then Prince Charles held practice audiences with him. Cameron remarked that then Prince Charles was “brilliant at listening, brilliant at asking questions, giving wise advice and sage counsel.”

This feature was originally published to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee in May 2022. The full original article can be found on the No.10 Downing Street History website.

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Michelle Clement

Michelle Clement

Lecturer

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