‘The Crown’ Season 4 Episode 8: Was the Sunday Times scoop on Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher rift true?
With the headline 'Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher', the explosive story reported that the PM’s approach was often 'confrontational and socially divisive'
Spoilers for ‘The Crown’ Season 4 Episode 8
Separated in age by just six months, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had enormous respect for each but did not really see eye to eye. Episode 8 titled ‘48:1’ puts the spotlight on their rift that led to a scandalous front-page Sunday Times scoop in the July 20, 1986 edition.
In the one-hour episode, the Queen finds herself at odds with her Prime Minister after Thatcher’s refusal to cooperate with Commonwealth leaders and back tougher sanctions against South Africa and its Apartheid regime.
Struggling to remain impartial on issues dearest to her, the Queen shares her frustration with her press secretary, Michael Shea, and a story is passed to the press, detailing The Queen’s disquiet about Thatcherism. When the story blows up, the Queen is required to deny her role in it, but her actions have stoked the flames, causing an unprecedented rift between Prime Minister and Sovereign with parties fearing a constitutional crisis.
It is then that the Queen must once more remember the limits of her role as an apolitical figurehead and embrace the quiet power she still wields. Was the Sunday Times scoop real and what did it really say?
With the headline “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher”, the explosive story reported that the Queen considered her PM’s approach to be often “confrontational and socially divisive”. The original report said the queen was also said to be upset because an African-led boycott of the Commonwealth Games, spurred by Thatcher's refusal to impose sanctions against South Africa, threatened the 49-nation Commonwealth of former British colonies.
An AP report reveals the contents of the scoop:
“It was made clear that the queen is not campaigning for economic sanctions” against South Africa, the independent Sunday Times said. “But she ... believes that a compromise must be reached between Thatcher and the other Commonwealth leaders.” It also said the Queen considers the prime minister’s approach to domestic policy often uncaring, confrontational and divisive. It did not identify the advisers it attributed the reports to but said they specifically mentioned the Queen’s misgivings about allowing US bombers to use British airbases for their raid on Libya in April.
As per the newspaper, the aides also said the queen feared long-term damage was done to Britain’s social fabric during the year-long miner’s strike in 1983 and 1984, and the monarch felt the government lacked compassion toward the less-privileged.
According to an authorized Margaret Thatcher biography by the journalist Charles Moore in 2015, the accusations of being “uncaring” left Thatcher feeling “desperately hurt”, HistoryExtra.com revealed.
British columnist and television presenter Dominic Sandbrook even said that “there’s no reason to doubt the article reflected what the Queen really thought” but also added that the monarch was mortified. According to several reports, she rang Thatcher and personally apologized at the suggestion of Sir William Heseltine, who was then the Queen’s private secretary.
William reveals the Queen told Thatcher she “could not imagine how the story came to be circulated, and anyway it bears no relation to the truth as I understand it…” He added that the Queen and the prime minister “had a very amicable conversation”.
While they managed to sort out their differences, Sandbrook goes on to say the “prime minister did not forget it.” Reports said the row “probably wasn’t that big a deal [for Thatcher]. It would have been a bit awkward between them for a while, but there were probably 50 or 100 other people Thatcher had working relationships with that mattered more to her than the Queen.”
Thatcher’s press officer, Sir Bernard Ingham, later said: “There was a feeling around Buckingham Palace that people there were amused by Mrs Thatcher — people who derived amusement from Mrs Thatcher’s passion, people who looked down their noses at her, as a kind of Johnny-come-lately.”
A Daily Beast report revealed Thatcher said she was “knocked sideways” by the affair, distressed that the public believed she had upset the Queen, to whom she always curtseyed. “There was a lot of dismay around, a lot of shaking of heads over the Sunday Times material.” Ingham said, “It was a cross we had to bear.”
At the time, the source was not mentioned but the newspaper attributed its report to “sources close to the queen” and “several briefings by the queen's advisers who were fully aware [the article] would be published”.
Following the publication of the Sunday Times story in 1986, Buckingham Palace rushed out a statement in response: “As with all previous prime ministers, the Queen enjoys a relationship of the closest confidentiality with Mrs Thatcher, and reports purporting to be the Queen’s opinion of government policies are entirely without foundation.”
A disclaimer at the end of the episode read: “The Palace continues to insist that the Queen has never expressed an opinion or passed judgment on any of her Prime Ministers.”
Even with all the denials from the palace, Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil stood by the story and was quoted in The Times, its sister daily newspaper, as saying, “I was surprised and impressed by the caliber of the sources. I am still puzzled about the motive.” A hunt for a Palace "mole" ensued. Soon, press secretary Michael Shea was confirmed to be the source of the story – he had had several conversations with one of the paper’s reporters.
Members of Parliament called for Shea's resignation with one saying Shea’s “sense of honor (should) tell him what he ought to do now; he is a busted flush and he must go.” Heseltine later responded to the controversy in a letter to The Times confirming Shea as the contact but said his comments had been misreported.
In ‘The Crown’, Shea resigns after taking the fall for the Sunday Times story. However, Shea denied his resignation had anything to do with the Sunday Times scandal. In fact, he was a bestselling author whose first thriller was published in 1971, way before the events of this episode. After serving in places like Ghana, Germany, and the US, working for the Foreign Service gave him a lot of experience to chart a political thriller. At 79, he died of dementia in the year 2009.
Catch all 10 episodes of ‘The Crown’ Season 4 once they drop on November 15, 2020, on Netflix.