Margaret Thatcher and the Queen: The two most powerful women in the world

The Iron Lady’s relationship with Elizabeth II was not as fraught as is often portrayed

When Margaret Thatcher was forced out of Downing Street by her own Cabinet in 1990, the Queen felt her Prime Minister had been so badly treated that she invited her to a horse racing meeting as a goodwill gesture. Friends of Baroness Thatcher recalled this week that she was in no mood to accept, but was still touched by the surprise invitation.

But Lady Thatcher’s former aides do not pretend that the relationship between the two most powerful people in Britain for 11 years was a close one.

Insiders suggest the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, was much more of an admirer of the Conservative Prime Minister’s politics than the Queen, a more consensual and centrist figure by instinct.

Temperamentally, the two women were different, according to their courtiers. The Queen is said to possess a dry wit, while Lady Thatcher’s ability to “go on and on” applied to her conversational style, as well as her determination to remain in Downing Street.

Some of her ministers complained that Thatcher lacked a sense of humour. Her speechwriters once persuaded her to use Monty Python’s “dead parrot” joke to describe the Liberal Democrats after they adopted a yellow bird as their symbol. But she didn’t get the joke, and asked aides: “Monty Python – are you sure he is one of us?” (John Whittingdale, her political secretary, replied: “Absolutely, Prime Minister. He is a very good supporter.” She was reassured, and delivered the line perfectly.)

Former Thatcher aides insist the  businesslike relationship between the Queen and Lady Thatcher was not as fraught as it is often portrayed – not least on stage and screen.

Peter Morgan’s current play The Audience imagines the private weekly meetings between the monarch, played by Helen Mirren, and most of her 12 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. In it, Lady Thatcher angrily confronts the Queen over an explosive 1986 report in The Sunday Times headlined: “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher.”

The real life version was different. Allies recall that Lady Thatcher felt “crushed” by the story. But it was not, as is sometimes presented, a case of Buckingham Palace expressing concern about high unemployment or the miners’ strike, which ended a year earlier.

The Queen may well have had anxieties about her divided nation. She was “in her own way, a bit of a leftie,” said historian Ben Pimlott, who wrote a biography of the monarch. But it would have strayed across the line into politics to let any such anxieties be known.

The Sunday Times report centered on the Queen’s fears for the future of the Commonwealth because of Lady Thatcher’s refusal to impose tough sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. The story was well-sourced – from Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary. The Palace and No 10 were both given notice it would run. Today’s spin doctors would almost certainly have attempted to stop it appearing. Once in print, it caused a sensation. The Palace belatedly denied it.

But Shea, although not authorised to leak the sensational material, had accurately reflected the Queen’s fears about the Commonwealth.

That they emerged publicly cheered the Foreign Office and helped to steady nerves among Commonwealth countries pressing for sanctions. Unintentionally, the Queen and Prime Minister formed a double act which pushed South Africa towards change.

Despite the real tensions over South Africa, some former Tory ministers believe the Queen’s respect for Lady Thatcher grew as she became the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century. She chose to award her the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit when she lost power, and did not have to attend Lady Thatcher’s 80th birthday party in 2005, but chose to.

Although the Palace never doubted Lady Thatcher’s patriotism, eyebrows were raised when the Prime Minister rather than the Queen took the salute from the Falklands servicemen who paraded through London after the 1982 war. This was in sharp contrast to 1945, when King George VI took the salute rather than Churchill, the victor in a war of hugely different proportions.

The pivotal role at the funeral of forces personnel involved in the Falklands conflict underlines the point: Lady Thatcher wanted to be remembered not just as a strong leader, but as a war leader.

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