The two women who became Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, and Queen Elizabeth II, the country’s longest-reigning monarch, were on a collision course to the 1980s. I reported on Mrs Thatcher from before she became party leader in 1975 to the doorstep of No10 Downing Street four years later, where she read her St Francis of Assisi homily to my microphone. All that peace and reconciliation stuff wasn’t her at all. My next question, asking what her father would have thought to have seen her that day, is rarely shown but produced a genuine Thatcher answer: her Methodist lay preacher father always believed in the abilities of women, especially his own daughters.
My wife and I were later invited to Chequers. Mrs Thatcher wanted my advice on two questions that mystified her: what to do about Northern Ireland and why the BBC had just appointed a committed socialist and republican, my namesake John Cole, as its new political editor to report on her new government? So I knew how Mrs Thatcher thought about most things, including the monarchy.
In short, she believed that a constitutional monarchy was a good system and the institution generally suited the British temperament, as it ensured the separation of powers that lesser democracies sometimes found tricky.
That is why I have found The Crown, for all its superb production values and undoubted entertainment as a royal soap opera, so flawed in its portrayal of the true nature of the relationship between Monarch and Prime Minister.
No one knows what was said on Tuesday evenings when Mrs Thatcher had her “audience of the Queen”. No one but the Queen, that is, and she will never tell.
The soap is ‘flawed’ in its portrayal of the relationship between the monarch and PM
But it is inconceivable to me that those audiences ever became stand-ups rows, with Mrs Thatcher actually standing over the Queen in one scene, before, at length, taking her seat for a more measured discussion.
The conflict between the two powerful women, both aged 60 at the time, comes into sharp focus, in the week before the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in July 1986.
We see the Queen and trusted Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris instructing Press Secretary, former diplomat Michael Shea, to brief a newspaper that Her Majesty is much opposed to Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa.
She is also deeply concerned that Mrs Thatcher’s social policies are hitting the poorest in Britain and dividing her country.
Shea is shown strongly advising against doing any such thing and, when he is overridden by the Queen’s instruction, he says to Charteris that he wants his protest against the plan to be noted, to which Charteris replies, pointedly, “noted”.
Shea is then seen slipping into what looks like a Westminster pub to meet two Sunday Times journalists, neither a royal reporter, but rather members of the paper’s investigative “Insight” team.
day Times, then edited by Andrew Neil who has never had difficulty recognising a sensational tale, splashes the story sensationally, as the Queen and Thatcher at war.
The story was covered by that Sunday’s television bulletins but there was nothing that could be termed an uproar, let alone a constitutional crisis. There was talk of the “Palace Mole” but no government briefing that the Mole had to be caught and exterminated.
I went to see Michael Shea in his office the next morning. Far from a dingy dungeon shared with a secretary, as depicted in The Crown, it was a spacious and impressive corner suite with a nice view of the Palace gardens.
Mrs Thatcher was brought up to have good manners
Michael was ebullient, overflowing with the self-confidence that could often look like vanity-on-stilts. As I entered, he theatrically closed the double doors of his office and leaned his back against them. “Do you want to know who The Mole is, Michael?” he began.
When I replied that I did, he put his hands up to either side of his mouth and imitated the actions of a burrowing mole. I laughed. It was the funniest thing I’d seen
on dozens of visits, via the Privy Purse door, to his office.
Shea told me he met the Sunday Times journalists at their invitation. He had not sought them out.
And they had given much more emphasis to his words than he had intended, expected or wished.
Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret arrive at St Margarets, Westminster for a society wedding
Asked about Britain’s refusal to impose sanctions he said the Queen was concerned by its possible effect on a Commonwealth that she had worked for tirelessly throughout her reign.
It was the same with questions about government policies that hit the poor, he said. He simply replied that the Monarch was concerned by the welfare of all her people. Michael always called his boss “The Monarch”.
Notwithstanding this version of events, I told my editor at BBC TV, Ron Neil, that Shea would be gone within six months. It was his briefing, not the Queen’s. In modern parlance, he had “misspoke”.
The Crown shows Shea being told by Charteris to do the “decent thing” by resigning and leaving, which he does.
He is then shown clearing his desk, packing his box and then having to search for a taxi at the Palace gates. It never happened.
The press was told Her Majesty was deeply concerned that Thatcher’s policies were dividing Britain
What really happened is that the Palace found him a very nice job as director of PR at the Anglo-American Hanson Group and he left the following year, telephoning me before his departure was officially announced so that it would get on the 9pm news.
And Charteris wasn’t the Private Secretary at the time. He retired in 1977.
In 1986, Sir William Heseltine was appointed to the key post and he wrote a letter to The Times saying it was “preposterous” to suggest the Queen would either violate Britain’s unwritten constitution or permit her aides to do so on her behalf.
The Crown makes much of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nassau, Bahamas, as catalyst of this crisis.
But the conference took place 10 months before the invented confrontation in the Queen’s drawing room, in which Mrs Thatcher is seen to deliver a lecture on the sovereign’s rigid obligation to avoid any form of commentary on government policy and performance.
The Queen was not always po-faced and Thatcher was more emollient than prickly
Yet while Mrs Thatcher was a woman of strong, even dogmatic opinions, no prime minister has been more mindful of the respect owed to the Queen by Her Majesty’s First Lord of the Treasury. And no one has ever dropped a curtsey as low.
The Crown would have been on much firmer ground if it had chosen to portray the dramatic events that followed the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983 to oust the island’s Marxist regime the USA feared could turn Grenada into another Cuba.
President Ronald Reagan did not inform his friend Margaret Thatcher of the secret operation until US Marines had their boots on Grenada’s golden beaches.
This annoyed Mrs Thatcher but absolutely infuriated the Queen.
Grenada was and remains one of the Queen’s overseas dominions. She is Queen of Grenada. That her UK government had not warned her of what was going to happen incensed
her and, rightly or wrongly, she blamed Mrs Thatcher, who had immediately called an emergency Cabinet meeting at No10.
No one knows what was said on Tuesday evenings when Mrs Thatcher has her ‘audience of the Queen’
Midway through the meeting a message came saying the Queen wished Mrs Thatcher’s attendance at the Palace. The PM, unwisely, replied that she would be there after the Cabinet. This provoked a missile back from the Palace: “The Queen requires the Prime Minister’s attendance now”.
Mrs Thatcher scurried off and was given a frosty reception.
But there was nothing frosty when the Thatchers had their first weekend at Balmoral.
The Royal Family did not set out to humiliate Denis and his wife and they did not leave the Castle early, resenting the behaviour of their snobbish hosts.
It didn’t happen then, nor on the many subsequent visits, the PM’s weekend in the Highlands being part of the slightly quirky traditions of British governance.
And Mrs Thatcher was brought up to have good manners. After her election victory in 1979 she invited to the party in No10 all the reporters who had covered her campaign, all the police escorts, coach drivers and airline pilots – and all their wives or husbands.
One thing that is commendable about The Crown is Gillian Anderson’s highly accomplished portrayal of Mrs Thatcher.
It is not an impersonation. For one thing, the Anglo-American actress is considerably shorter than the Iron Lady, which is very clear when she stands close to Olivia Colman as the Queen.
The two women were of very similar stature and were more alike than The Crown might imply.
The Queen did not go through life with one po-faced expression for all occasions, and Mrs Thatcher was more emollient than prickly, believing good manners should be shown in return for bad.
Because of writer Peter Morgan’s political stance, The Crown does not show that Queen and country were well served by Thatcher’s 11-year transformation. Mrs Thatcher’s only mistake, and it was a bad one, was taking the salute at the Mansion House in the City of London when troops from the Falklands War marched past.
That was the Monarch’s job and Buckingham Palace should not have allowed this to happen.
- Michael Cole is a former BBC Royal Correspondent