Long Reads

All of the Queen’s prime ministers and the changing political landscape of Britain

When Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne at the age of 25, the then-prime minister, Winston Churchill, was 77, and he treated her with elaborate gallantry. All the same, he was accused of “steam-rollering” the new Queen in the first decision she had to make, which was what her surname was. Churchill favoured Windsor, because it sounded English, against Prince Philip who wanted it to be Mountbatten. She set a pattern for her reign by not deciding: she allowed her government to go ahead with Windsor, although Philip won a compromise in 1960, with Mountbatten-Windsor being used for male-line descendants without royal titles.

When Churchill suffered a stroke in 1953, some of the Queen’s officials wondered whether she might have to suggest to him that he should stand down. Again, she decided by not deciding. Churchill recovered enough to carry on until he chose to retire in 1955. Then, as the Conservative party had nothing so vulgar as leadership elections in those days, there was a danger that the royal prerogative might mean something and that she would have to choose who his successor should be. Fortunately, everyone assumed it would be Anthony Eden, the deputy prime minister, so she asked him.

The courtly new prime minister turned out to be surprisingly stiff and formal. He was 57 when he finally achieved the office for which he had been marked out since he first served as foreign secretary in the 1930s. He was the first divorced prime minister, which was a big deal then, but the trickiest moment of his premiership was the Suez crisis. It was terminal for his reputation and difficult for her because, seeing all the secret telegrams, she knew enough to know that her prime minister was going behind the backs of the Americans, but perhaps did not know enough about foreign affairs to warn him that it was bound to end in tears.


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