BORIS JOHNSON: I told the Queen I’d had a nightmare about being late for her and the Duke. ‘Oh, yes’, she replied, clearly having heard this one from a PM before. ‘Were you naked?’
It’s weird how often I think of the Queen, even though it is now a year since she died. It’s not that our late monarch has proved irreplaceable. On the contrary, the new King is doing an outstanding job.
After his epic apprenticeship he is proving — as our national poet puts it — most royal. And yet I find that my mind goes back, virtually every day, to the conversations that I was lucky enough to have with Elizabeth II.
It happens when I am in the garden, or staring vacantly out of the window — and a flash of something white and black catches my eye. I think of the Queen every time I see a magpie; and I remember her magpie advice.
Even though I am only very mildly neurotic about this question, I pass on her solution, today, in the hope that it will be useful.
The Queen had graciously allowed me to exercise in Buckingham Palace gardens, to get my wind back after being ill. So I was telling her how lovely it all looked — the lake, the ducks, the roses, and for some reason I mentioned my paranoia about these solitary parti-coloured corvids.
‘Ah,’ she said. Now I am sure that all her PMs would say that it was one of Queen’s great gifts that she could make you feel — whatever you were telling her — that you were really rather special and interesting; and then to flash that wonderful smile. Which is what she did now.
When you were with her, you could see why the elderly Churchill had such a crush on her. You understood why Barack Obama was so entranced that he stayed up drinking with her so late, they say, that the footmen had to come and cough to indicate that the evening was at an end.
You felt that even though she had seen it all, knew it all, she also enjoyed and appreciated politics in all its intricacy and absurdity.
Of course I still can’t say anything, for reasons everyone understands, about her own views — punchy though they sometimes were. But I can say that her advice was grounded in deep knowledge. We were grappling one day with the subject of Zambia, and I was trying to remember the name of the late President. ‘Kenneth Kaunda,’ she said instantly.
Another time we were talking about the last English monarch to lead his troops into battle. I could remember the King — George II — but I couldn’t remember the battle.
‘Dettingen,’ she said, like a pub quiz winner.
One evening I was embarrassed to learn that one of our exorbitantly expensive F-35 fighters had blown a gasket on the deck of an aircraft carrier (because someone had left a plastic covering over the air intake) and plopped into the Med.
Who broke it to me? Not the MOD. Not my excellent former Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. It was Her Majesty who told me the bad news — and if she was surprised by my ignorance, she didn’t let it show. She was never less than supportive, and always encouraging, always thinking about how others might be feeling.
All of her PMs have had the surreal experience of going to Balmoral, and watching Britain’s longest-serving monarch as she prepares her special vinaigrette. We have accepted from her hand the sausages barbecued by the Duke of Edinburgh, and tried to help her pack it all away in her special Tupperware boxes. I expect every PM has been pretty nervous on arrival.
The first evening we found a note on the bed for Carrie. ‘Ma’am,’ it said helpfully, ‘Her Majesty will be wearing an ice-blue cocktail dress for dinner this evening.’ I don’t think Carrie had packed anything like an ice-blue cocktail dress, but it was a useful piece of information.
Later that evening we had all gathered in the drawing room when our two-year-old rushed into the room, hair looking pretty manic. There was a tiny Batemanesque* pause before the Queen took him off to find a lovely old red trolley — which had doubtless conveyed all sorts of royal toddlers — and peace returned.
It was because of her humanity and sympathy that you felt, as PM, that you could really open up to her, tell her absolutely everything, so that the audiences were a mixture between a tutorial and a confessional, with a bit of unpaid psychotherapy thrown in. I once told her that I had a nightmare that I had been late for her and the Duke.
‘Oh yes,’ she beamed, and I could tell that she had heard this one before, probably from other PMs. ‘Were you naked?’ she asked, because it turns out that is a common feature of such dreams.
If I had to sum up the tenor of her advice, it is that no disaster is ever really irretrievable (just as no triumph is ever final) and that in their natural resilience and genius the British people would get through anything, provided — and this was the key point — there was the right spirit of duty and service and effort, virtues she exemplified all her life.
Our last conversation, the day I ceased to be Prime Minister, took place only a couple of days before she died; and I am told that there may have been a reason for this. She knew in that summer of last year that her health was now failing, but she was determined to do her job as monarch, to hang on until she had performed the crucial function of seeing off her 14th UK Prime Minister (me), and making sure that there was a peaceful and orderly transition to the 15th.
She succeeded in that, as in so much else, because she believed that by willpower and energy we can shape our ends and transform our fortunes: a lesson this country perhaps needs to remember these days.
As for my trivial superstition about magpies, she sympathised. She had it herself, she said. Thus encouraged, I unburdened myself further.
It’s that blasted rhyme — one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, etc. If I see a single magpie, I think it’s bad luck, I said, and I start scanning the skies like an augur* for that crucial second magpie.
Is that one there, or is it a crow? Does it count? And which way are they flying? Am I facing a revolt on the Right or the Left of politics? It all starts to become rather time-consuming.
‘It’s easy,’ said the Queen. ‘What you do is say: ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, today is… ‘ and then you give the right day and the right date. That does the trick.’
It works — because it sometimes takes an effort, in the morning fog, to remember what day and date it is. Once you have, you are in charge of the agenda.
Your mind moves on. The solitary magpie is forgotten. So if you get spooked by a magpie today, tell him it’s Saturday, September 2, 2023, and get on with your day, fortified by some practical advice from Elizabeth, our late, great queen, who died a year ago next week.