Of all the relationships between the Queen and her prime ministers, the one with Margaret Thatcher was not just the longest and the most intriguing, it was also the most misunderstood.
Two women born within a year of each other — Baroness Thatcher was six months older — their outlook shaped by the same childhood experiences of war, a strong Anglican faith, love of country and a shared sense of duty, yet temperamentally they were so very different.
The Queen possesses a dry wit while Lady Thatcher’s capacity to go on and on applied as much to her conversational style as her determination to remain in Downing Street.
Even before her resignation there was an enduring fascination with the dynamic between our monarch and her first female prime minister — and it was fertile enough territory for myths to grow up, too.
Margaret Thatcher (pictured left) and the Queen attend a memorial service to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Falklands War in 2007
As the years passed, it became fashionable — certainly by those on the Left — to see the two as competitive, rivals even, amid claims that they had disagreed over key political issues during the 1980s, from the miners’ strike and sanctions against South Africa to allowing U.S. war planes to bomb Libya from British military bases.
The relationship is once again set to come under forensic gaze with the latest Netflix series of The Crown.
Its writer, Peter Morgan, who says he was struck by how much the two women had in common, presents them as ‘twins’ bound together by their similarities.
Mr Morgan, of course, has ‘form’ in this area. His play The Audience, which premiered in the West End just weeks before Lady Thatcher’s death in 2013, imagined the private weekly meetings between the monarch and her PMs.
In it, Thatcher was portrayed confronting the Queen over a newspaper headline which claimed ‘Queen dismayed over “uncaring” Thatcher’.
Margaret Thatcher and the Queen at a birthday part for the former Prime Minister in London in 2005
Now he returns to the fray with the American-born actress Gillian Anderson playing Lady Thatcher and Olivia Colman reprising her role as the Queen for the fourth series, which starts in November.
‘When I found out they were born only six months apart, that was a really big breakthrough for me,’ says Morgan, who positions the two as foils with wildly different attitudes, despite their similarities. ‘They’re like twins who are not the same.’
He adds: ‘They’re both very resilient, very committed, work incredibly hard, have an extraordinary sense of duty. They’re both really committed to the country.
‘They both have a strong Christian faith. They’re both girls of the war generation who switch the lights off when they leave a room. But then they had such different ideas about running the country.’
The series covers the period from 1977 — when Thatcher was Opposition leader — to 1990 the year of her resignation after more than 11 years as premier and will, just as Morgan’s play did, include recreations of the PM’s weekly audience at Buckingham Palace.
Just how faithful will Morgan be to the events of that era remains to be seen, but what then is the truth of the remarkable relationship between two women who did so much to define modern Britain? Was it really as testy and difficult as has been claimed — not least by Mr Morgan? Was it just a business arrangement or was there genuine warmth?
Perhaps the most evidence comes from Lady Thatcher’s 80th birthday party, held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge in 2005. The Queen and Prince Philip were guests, just as they had been ten years earlier for her 70th at Claridge’s.
Lord Powell, Mrs Thatcher’s most senior foreign affairs adviser for a decade who was at the party, recalls: ‘When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived halfway through the evening, Lady Thatcher went out to meet them. She performed one of her deepest curtsies I’d ever seen.
‘I can vividly recall the Queen gently taking Mrs Thatcher by the hand and leading her around the room, talking to guests. Margaret by then was becoming more confused and forgetful, so it was an extraordinary gesture by the Queen.
The relationship is once again set to come under forensic gaze with the latest Netflix series of The Crown. American-born actress Gillian Anderson (left) will play Lady Thatcher and Olivia Colman (right) reprising her role as the Queen for the fourth series, which starts in November
‘Later, when the Queen came to say her farewells, Lady Thatcher replied that she should leave, too. At which point Her Majesty said gently: “Perhaps you ought to stay Lady Thatcher — it is your party.” ’
Are these the actions of a woman who was said to have no time for her former prime minister? Indeed, one author made the astonishing claim that when they met the two had ‘disliked each other on sight’.
In fact, according to courtiers and political figures of the time, there was warmth and affection on both sides. ‘They were not friends, but there was huge respect for the job of one and the role of the other,’ as one insider puts it.
James Callaghan, Mrs Thatcher’s predecessor in No. 10, once observed of the relationship between monarch and PM that the Queen offered ‘friendliness’, not friendship.
As Lord Powell told us: ‘The truth is that Mrs Thatcher was over-awed by the Queen. It is not surprising when you consider her background, living above the family shop in Grantham.
‘In fact, I think she remained in awe of the Queen the whole way through her premiership.
As a young Conservative MP for Finchley in the 1960s, Mrs Thatcher found herself invited to Buckingham Palace garden parties
‘Her curtsies were always low, and although I used to brief her before her weekly audiences, she never told us anything that happened, not a word. I don’t think she even told Denis (her husband).’
Margaret Thatcher was an instinctive monarchist. The first time she saw the Queen — or Princess Elizabeth as she then was — was at the 2,000 Guineas race meeting at Newmarket in 1949.
It was clearly a significant moment for the then unmarried Margaret Roberts, who was 23 and at the meeting with boyfriend Willie Cullen. She wrote in her diary: ‘Saw Princess Elizabeth, and she saw me.’
Four years later, and by now married, Mr and Mrs Denis Thatcher had a prized seat in Parliament Square to watch the coronation of the new Queen Elizabeth II.
As a young Conservative MP for Finchley in the 1960s, Mrs Thatcher found herself invited to Buckingham Palace garden parties, but it was in the early 1970s when she was Education Secretary in Ted Heath’s government that she talked to the Queen for any length of time.
The frequency of their encounters increased when she was appointed to the Privy Council, and again after her election as Tory leader in 1975 when she was an automatic invite to State banquets at the Palace.
All this meant that by the time she became Prime Minister in 1979, the two women knew one another. It was the start of the most absorbing of relationships.
Here were two women, both mothers of young adults and both used to being the only woman in the room.
One of Lady Thatcher’s rare jokes came after a Downing Street dinner she gave to celebrate victory in the Falklands War in 1982.
She had invited service chiefs and many of the key officers. They were all men. Their wives, meanwhile, had been invited for coffee.
As dinner ended, Lady Thatcher stood and said: ‘Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?’
But she took her duties to her sovereign very seriously, making sure she arrived for her weekly audience in plenty of time. Most weeks she was 15 minutes early.
Did this annoy the Queen? A former private secretary told us: ‘Not irritation, more amusement really, but she never saw her any earlier.’
When the Queen was in residence at Windsor Castle, Mrs Thatcher was sometimes so early she would stop in a layby for 45 minutes.
‘She would sit there in the back of the ministerial car doing her Red Boxes,’ remembers a former aide.
The frequency of their encounters increased when she was appointed to the Privy Council, and again after her election as Tory leader in 1975 when she was an automatic invite to State banquets at the Palace
In his official biography of the former PM, Charles Moore described the awkwardness of those weekly Tuesday audiences.
‘Thatcher would sit nervously on the edge of her chair, produce an agenda from her handbag and launch into a monologue.’
The Queen was later said to have told her private secretary, Sir William Heseltine: ‘I wasn’t given much encouragement to comment.’
Yesterday, Charles Moore — now Lord Moore of Etchingham — said: ‘There is a popular view that Mrs Thatcher lectured the Queen about economic policy. It is completely untrue.
‘In reality, what she said was usually an anodyne recitation of current business to which the Queen said virtually nothing.
‘The problem with Mrs Thatcher and the Queen in the beginning of her premiership was that Mrs Thatcher was in awe of the monarch.
‘It made it difficult to have a relaxed relationship. In the weekly audiences at the palace in the early days there was some irritation on the part of the Queen when it appeared she got a read-out of the government’s programme from Mrs Thatcher, rather than a proper discussion.’
He added: ‘Another difficulty arose over the fact it was the first time the head of state and the Prime Minister were both women. Mrs Thatcher always wanted to be correct with the Queen.
‘Protocol dictated she couldn’t ask Buckingham Palace what the Queen was going to wear at an event they were both attending so that their outfits never clashed.
‘But the palace would always say the Queen would be relaxed about whatever Mrs Thatcher was wearing
‘Mrs Thatcher was also agonisingly careful not to upstage the Queen because she had such a huge respect for the monarch.
‘At Commonwealth summits, she was always careful to ensure that the Queen was centre stage.
‘But maddeningly for a biographer she would never tell me anything the Queen ever said to her. ‘
All the same, the reported clash between monarch and PM in 1986 over a Sunday Times story has ever since been the source of much of the mischief spun over the relationship between the two women
The Queen’s respect for Lady Thatcher grew as she became the longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century
It concerned Britain’s refusal to consider Commonwealth sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa.
According to supposedly impeccable sources, the Queen regarded Mrs Thatcher’s policies as ‘uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive’.
The story was hugely embarrassing for the monarchy — it appeared to break every rule on constitutional neutrality — and equally awkward for the PM.
It later emerged the Queen’s Press Secretary, Michael Shea, was the source — but he was adamant his remarks had been misinterpreted.
The Queen was horrified and telephoned Mrs Thatcher on the Saturday afternoon before the newspaper was published, to apologise.
The relationship survived, though the prime minister never forgot it, fearing it would cost her support.
‘Those little old ladies will say Mrs Thatcher is upsetting the Queen,’ she told an adviser. ‘I’ll lose voters.’
Former senior officials on both sides remain adamant that neither side would have dreamed of briefing against the other.
‘I always felt those stories were exaggerated. The Queen was always rather fascinated by the achievement of Mrs Thatcher in making such an impact upon the world,’
Charles Anson, a former press secretary, told the Queen’s biographer — the Mail’s Robert Hardman: ‘The Queen might be amused or startled by something Mrs Thatcher said, but it wouldn’t alter her judgment that she was a fantastic force to be reckoned with.
‘And, constitutionally, the Queen just would not make snap judgments about her Prime Minister.’
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 felt her Prime Minister had been so badly treated that she invited her to a race meeting as a goodwill gesture.
In 2013, she was at Lady Thatcher’s funeral. She has attended the funeral of only one other prime minister — Winston Churchill, her very first.
Afterwards, she remained to talk to Lady Thatcher’s children and grandchildren.
Her very presence was an affirmation of the esteem in which she had held her, and demonstrated that theirs had been a relationship quite unlike any other.