Tony Blair was only a few months into his tenure as British prime minister in 1997 when he got a close look at how Queen Elizabeth II responded to a tragedy that reverberated around the world when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash.
Blair, 69, recalled to Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday how he urged the queen to speak out in the wake of Diana's tragic death, and how she handled the nationwide turmoil. He shared his memories as the late monarch’s coffin was set to be transported to London on Tuesday following her death last week at 96.
"It was difficult, but here’s the thing, she was trying to balance what she had to do as a queen and what she had to do as a grandmother," Blair said. "And she was acutely aware that she had two young, young children who had lost their mother in terrible circumstances, and who were grieving and who needed to be looked after."
In addition to consoling her grandsons, Prince Harry and Prince William, the queen also worked to comfort the nation.
"In the end she understood, because always her duty came first, that she had to respond to this extraordinary outpouring of grief about Princess Diana, but grief, and unlike her own passing now, mixed with — maybe anger’s too strong a word — but a sense that something had happened that shouldn’t have happened, and that Diana had been taken from people who really did love her," Blair said.
"She really didn’t need me to tell her. She sensed it, and then she responded. And when she responded, she responded perfectly. She got the tone absolutely right."
That ability to have her finger on the pulse of the country lasted right to the end of her 70-year reign, according to Blair. He had lunch with her only a few months ago.
"In terms of how she was, she was in amazing form," Blair said. "She was warm and humorous and interested in everything. She kept a very, very keen and sharp eye on the country and how it was changing and what its people thought right up until the end."
Blair had rare access to the queen in his 10 years as prime minister, meeting alone with her more than 500 times during his weekly audience with the monarch.
"She was above it, above politics," he said. "When I was appointed prime minister, I remember she said to me, her first words to me, 'My first prime minister was Winston (Churchill), and that was before you were born.' So she had this extraordinary grip on history."
It was a surreal relationship for Blair, who grew up in the north of England and remembered Elizabeth visiting the area when he was a child.
"I remember standing in the street and waving my little flag as she drove by," he said. "For someone of my generation, she was all we’d known, and we’d grown up with her, and therefore when you’re suddenly her prime minister, it’s a pretty humbling moment."
Blair also got to see her informal side during traditional September trips to Balmoral Castle in Scotland to visit with the royal family. He said tradition dictates that the prime minister is served by the royal family, including the queen.
"They lay the table, they serve the food, they do the washing up afterwards," he said. "And I was still obviously a very new prime minister, very nervous being there, and it was a completely surreal event where the queen was serving me the food and I wasn’t allowed to even go and get the plate.
"And I remember going back and sitting in the room at Balmoral afterwards. That was, 'I can’t believe what just happened.' That was when I realized it was an extraordinary thing to be a prime minister."
After a majority of Britain's citizens have only known life with Queen Elizabeth II as the monarch, they now transition to her son, King Charles III.
"It sort of gives you a sense of, for us at least, our history and the long nature of our country’s identity and traditions," he said.
Blair reflected on what type of king Charles may be.
"I think he’ll be a great monarch," he said. "I think that he’s a very caring person. He was way ahead of his time. He was talking about climate change when most people didn’t even know what the word meant.
"So I think he’s got all of that experience, and he’s watched his mother, and he knows now he’s in a different position."
Blair sees the monarchy remaining on stable ground under the guidance of King Charles.
"There’s always a debate all the time that runs throughout any modern country with a monarchy because in one sense it’s a complete anomaly in a world that’s not very deferential, that dislikes hierarchy, that distrusts class, that often frowns upon tradition," Blair said.
"But on the other hand, I think, and this was the queen’s genius in a way, was to combine that tradition with being comfortable with the modern world. But for us, this is part of our tradition. We enjoy the tradition. I think the monarchy’s strong, and I think he will keep it strong."