What’s the Beef?

Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth’s Complicated Relationship

Recently deceased former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II had a complicated relationship. Andrew Marr on a barbecue at the Queen’s Balmoral estate that reveals their differences. An excerpt from Marr’s The Real Elizabeth.    

Anwar Hussein/Getty

A wide variety of experienced politicians, civil servants and courtiers who observed at first hand the Queen’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher agree: it was (long pause, pained expression) “difficult.” Here were two women of similar age but very dissimilar backgrounds; previously strangers, they were conjoined during the most tumultuous and confrontational years of postwar politics.

Among the most radical of the Thatcherite thinkers were some whose contempt for the old, flabby institutions of a weary, oversocialized country reached even to the monarchy. They (naively) tended to see the United States as a model in politics and economics, a briskly invigorating meritocracy where wealth was made, not inherited. They disliked the Queen’s tolerance of left-wing dictators in the Commonwealth and had no more patience for the easy life and unchallenged rituals of the court than they did for BBC executives or tenured academics. Ardent young men from think tanks saw “Margaret” as their real queen, and even older gurus of the right, such as Enoch Powell, warned that the Queen’s overseas ambition was mere swollen pride. In the 1970s, the Marxist left had derided the monarchy and the Queen had been assaulted on punk T-shirts. In the 1980s, the hostility of right-wing radicals was as serious. In a strange twist, by then many on the left had begun to delude themselves and believe that, deep down, the Queen was secretly on their side.

Margaret Thatcher herself gave no suggestion of anti-Queenism, at least in public. In her memoirs, she said that “stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were just too good not to make up” and she praised the Queen for her conduct of the weekly audiences.

These, said Lady Thatcher, were no mere formality: “they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.” The Tory revolutionary was so punctilious and respectful of her monarch it was almost embarrassing. She curtsied lower than the Queen thought necessary. “It was the starchiest relationship. She was deferential, much too deferential. The Queen was not requiring so much,” said one longtime observer. “The Queen had some most amusing and well-observed lines about Thatcher,” says a family friend.

Throughout her reign the Queen’s relationship with prime ministers had been with men, either older than herself and to be respected, or younger and to be helped by almost maternal listening.

Here was someone different. Some senior Whitehall sources believed that there was an early “stiffness” between the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher. Several say that each of them found the choreography of having two women at the apex of British life slightly awkward, which was why they rarely appeared together. There were early and earnest discussions about which of the two should go to which national events. Some officials recall meetings to make sure the prime minister was not wearing a similar outfit to the Queen’s; others say no. And Thatcher’s refusal to leave with the rest of “the ladies” at the end of dinners caused some discussion before she came to Balmoral; the informality of the outdoor barbecue was an obvious answer.

Fortunately the relationship was helped along by several icebreakers, none more effective than Denis Thatcher, whose role as prime ministerial consort was not so different from Prince Philip’s. He was equally adept at intervening to protect his wife at tricky social moments and making himself scarce when she had state business to attend to. Denis Thatcher got on well with the Queen Mother, enjoyed a drink as much as she did, and was punctilious about royal protocol. This went some way toward making the annual Balmoral visits easier, though unlike other prime ministers, the always-impatient Margaret Thatcher used the trip north to Scotland to get through party business as well. Before arriving at Balmoral, she would visit Tory officials in Edinburgh, stay with Sir Hector Laing, the genial leading elder of Scottish Toryism, at his estate, and perhaps manage a meeting of North East Scottish Conservatives.

This dedication to efficient time management was noted, with some wry amusement, by the Palace. Once Mrs. Thatcher arrived, there was also the problem of entertaining such an uncountrified and work-focused visitor. Asked whether the prime minister would be joining the rest for a walk on the hill, the Queen drily replied, “I think you will find Mrs. Thatcher only walks on the road.” And later, when Denis Thatcher suggested to his wife it was time to retire for bed—the Queen has a strict 11:15 p.m. curfew—she apparently replied with a puzzled: “Bed? What we would do up there?”

After a first evening dinner at the main house, a black tie occasion with local guests, the ritual second evening of each Balmoral visit features a barbecue organized mainly by Prince Philip. It takes place at a cottage or sometimes a summer house on the estate and begins with the Duke setting off in a Land Rover with a special trailer, ingeniously kitted out with cutlery, plates, glasses, drink and food. “When you arrived there, Prince Philip would be cursing away getting the barbecue going, and the Queen laid out the knives and forks and the equerries got the whisky going, and the seating plan was not at all hierarchical,” says one participant.

Prince Philip would arrive with a beautifully cooked but very rare piece of beef, “which didn’t suit Margaret at all, she hated rare meat,” and the Queen would ensure that she was sitting next to a new, or relatively junior, guest, to put them at ease. Another visitor recalls “feeling as if I was in some kind of virtual reality” where the Queen and Prince Philip were “playing at being normal people.”

Once, as the Queen handed around and then gathered in plates, Mrs. Thatcher, upset to see her monarch doing a menial job unaided, kept trying to leap up to help. Eventually the Queen hissed: “Will somebody tell that woman to sit down?” The story seems emblematic of their relationship: a prime minister with a strong sense of authority and deference only trying to help, and a Queen who cannot help feeling irritated by her. A similar story is told about the annual diplomatic reception at Buckingham Palace, a mammoth two-hour affair, crowded and intensely hot. At one of them, Mrs. Thatcher felt faint and had to sit down. The following year, it happened again. The Queen, physically tough and, as one person who was present put it, moving through the crowd “like a liner,” glanced over at her prime minister and said, “Oh look! She’s keeled over again.”

But as Mrs. Thatcher’s time in office went on, the Queen became more used to her and a mutual affection steadily grew. A senior Buckingham Palace official at the time recalls being struck by how vigorously they would talk together. Another says: “The Queen always saw the point of Margaret Thatcher. She understood that she was necessary.”

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Excerpted from THE REAL ELIZABETH: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Andrew Marr, published in paperback by St. Martin’s Griffin. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Marr. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.