The Crown S4 E10 real history: Thatcher’s resignation and the unravelling of a royal marriage

The tenth and final episode of season 4 of The Crown centres on the downfall of prime minister Margaret Thatcher following Sir Geoffrey Howe’s famous 1990 resignation speech. Elsewhere in the episode, Diana and Charles’s marriage continues to unravel after her trip to New York, and Prince Philip issues a stern warning to the princess against “breaking away” from the family

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in season 4 of ‘The Crown’

How historically accurate is The Crown’s portrayal of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation and Margaret Thatcher’s downfall? What really happened to Thatcher, and did Prince Philip really threaten Diana? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 10… 

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(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 10 of The Crown)

Why did Geoffrey Howe resign and what did he say in his speech?

For more than a decade, Geoffrey Howe had been one of Thatcher’s closest supporters. Her longest-serving cabinet minister, he served as chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and deputy prime minister. But by 1990 “a chasm [had] opened up between them over Europe”, says Andrew Rawnsley writing for the Observer. “He remained what he had always been: a passionately committed Tory believer in the European ideal. She was accelerating on her journey towards europhobia.”

In 1989, Thatcher abruptly dismissed Howe as foreign secretary over the issue of Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Howe had pushed her to agree to British membership of the ERM by threatening to resign if she didn’t. Howe was then given “the sop status of deputy prime minister, but any consolation that might have been was stripped away when Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, briefed the media that the title was essentially meaningless,” says Rawnsley.

Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, 1987
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe address members of the press between European Union summit meetings in Copenhagen, Denmark, 4 December 1987. (Photo by Thierry Orban/Sygma via Getty Images)

Tensions between Thatcher and her deputy continued to escalate, and Howe’s patience finally snapped after the prime minister declared at a European Council meeting in October 1990 that Britain would never join the European Single Currency. On 1 November, Howe became the fourth member of Thatcher’s cabinet to quit over the issue of Europe when he resigned as deputy prime minister. His was “the most damaging of a long series of departures” which included those of her chancellor Nigel Lawson and her close ally Nicholas Ridley, who was Britain’s secretary of state for trade and industry, The Times reported in 1990.

Who was Geoffrey Howe?

Hailed as one of the greats of the Conservative Party, Geoffrey Howe (1926–2015) was Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving cabinet minister. Having fought Thatcher for the leadership of the party in the 1975 contest, he went on to serve as her chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and deputy prime minister, as well as leader of the House of Commons.

Born in Port Talbot in south Wales, Howe read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before being called to the bar in 1952. He first entered the House of Commons as the MP for Bebington in 1964 and he was appointed a QC in 1965.

Howe’s famous 1990 resignation was the catalyst for Margaret Thatcher’s downfall as prime minister. Howe continued to be a major political player following his resignation: he was made a life peer in 1992 and continued to argue in favour of Europe. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1996.

Upon his death in 2015, then-prime minister David Cameron described him as “the quiet hero of the first Thatcher government”.

Howe delivered his blistering resignation statement in the House of Commons on 13 November 1990. Over the course of 18 minutes Howe attacked Thatcher’s dealings towards Europe, which he described as a “tragedy”, and told the House: “The Prime Minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation.”

As is shown in The Crown, Howe described Mrs Thatcher’s attitude to British negotiations in Europe as “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only to find… their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. He also really did quote a British businessman trading in Brussels “who wrote to me last week, stating: ‘People throughout Europe see our prime minister’s finger-wagging and hear her passionate, “No, no, no”, much more clearly than the content of the carefully worded formal texts.’” Here Howe was referring to Thatcher’s famous defiance in the Commons on 30 October. Responding to calls for greater central control in Europe, Thatcher declared “No, no, no”.

Geoffrey Howe resignation, 13 November 1990
Geoffrey Howe leaves his London home for the House of Commons to give his famous resignation speech criticising Margaret Thatcher, 13 November 1990. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Howe concluded that his “conflict of loyalty” to the prime minister and to what “I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great”. He ended his speech with a call-to-arms: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.” You can read Howe’s resignation speech in full here.

In The Crown, Thatcher is seen sobbing in her bedroom after Howe’s speech. This, says historian Dominic Sandbrook, is “perfectly plausible… There’s no doubt Howe’s resignation was a huge bombshell; it was a big deal for her.” 

When and why did Thatcher resign?

Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech set in motion the sequence of events that ultimately led to Thatcher’s downfall as prime minister. It encouraged her former defence minister Michael Heseltine to challenge her leadership (he had been hesitating over whether to launch such a challenge), and while Thatcher narrowly fended off that challenge, she fell four votes short of the number required to avoid a second round. This seriously undermined her authority within her own party. “It’s betrayal of the very worst kind,” Thatcher is seen to say in The Crown.

Within minutes of hearing the leadership challenge result, Thatcher addressed reporters on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris (she had been in France for a European security summit when the news came in) to say it was her intention to fight on, BBC News reported on 20 November 1990. “I shall fight on, I shall fight to win,” she famously declared. But Thatcher faced intense pressure to stand down. Meanwhile the Labour opposition leader, Neil Kinnock, tabled a motion of no confidence in the government and called for an immediate general election. (The motion of no confidence was ultimately defeated by 367 votes to 247, a government majority of 120, with no Tory defections).

Margaret Thatcher in Paris, 1990
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris, 20 November 1990. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

As is shown in The Crown, in the days following the leadership challenge Thatcher brought in her ministers one by one to ask if they would support her. In the show they tell her “the numbers are against you” and “the time might have come for some new blood”. This, says Dominic Sandbrook, is exactly what happened. “She made the mistake of having them in one by one – if she’d brought them in together, they’d have probably lacked the guts to stand up to her,” says Sandbrook. “A lot of them told her they would support her but that she couldn’t win. And basically, overnight, she was done for.”

Did Thatcher ask the Queen to dissolve parliament?

But The Crown’s depiction of Thatcher pleading with the Queen to dissolve parliament in order to prevent her from being ousted is “a colossal invention”, says Sandbrook. “This is total nonsense. There was no meeting with the Queen after Thatcher’s ministers told her to go. Actually, this distorts the true drama of events, which is that in the night her ministers told her to go; then the next morning they came to cabinet and she told them she was resigning, reading the statement in tears; then, when that was over, she went to the Commons and destroyed Neil Kinnock in probably her most famous parliamentary performance. There was no time for her to go to the palace amid all that.

“Above all, it’s utterly unthinkable that Thatcher would have asked the Queen to dissolve parliament. It’s such a massive distortion of what happened, and of her character and her relationship with the Queen, that I’m amazed it’s in the series.”

Two days after the leadership challenge, on 22 November 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. She formally tendered her resignation to the Queen on 28 November, and later that day, in a tearful speech from the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher said: “Now it’s time for a new chapter to open and I wish John Major all the luck in the world.” As is shown in The Crown, “the Iron Lady’s composure almost broke” as she got into the car to leave Downing Street.

Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street
Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis, are driven through the gates of Downing Street following the prime minister’s resignation speech, 28 November 1990. (Photo by Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images)

After her resignation speech, Mrs Thatcher and her husband, Denis, were driven to Buckingham Palace, where the former prime minister had a half-hour meeting with the Queen. In The Crown, during this meeting the Queen is seen to say “I was shocked by the way in which you were forced to leave office. And I wanted to offer my sympathy, not just as Queen to prime minister, but woman to woman.” Would the Queen really have said such a thing? “She might have thought the way Thatcher was assassinated by her own colleagues was a bit harsh, as a woman – the female leader kicked out by all the men ­who haven’t shown much gratitude,” says Dominic Sandbrook. “She might also have thought it was a grubby way to go out for a woman who had won three elections. But did she say as much? Who knows?”

As is shown in The Crown, the Queen really did honour Thatcher with the Order of Merit, but not until two weeks after she resigned. Denis, meanwhile, became Sir Denis Thatcher. In 1992 Margaret Thatcher was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher (of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire), which entitled her to sit in the House of Lords, and the Queen attended the former prime minister’s funeral in 2013, elevating its status to that of state funeral in all but name.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher leaving for her first day in the House of Lords, 30 June 1992. (Photo by Nicholson/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Baroness Margaret Thatcher leaving for her first day in the House of Lords, 30 June 1992. (Photo by Nicholson/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

What is the Order of Merit?

The Order of Merit is considered to be one of the UK and the Commonwealth’s highest honours. Established by King Edward VII in 1902, it recognises distinguished service in areas including the arts, sciences, literature, learning, and the armed forces.

The so-called most exclusive club in the world, at any point in time there can only be a total of 24 members of the OM. Admission into the order remains the personal gift of the sovereign. There are currently 20 members in the Order of Merit.

The honour does not come with a title, but members are given a red and blue enamel badge which reads ‘For Merit’. When a member dies the badge is returned to the Queen, who receives the next-of-kin personally.

Notable people in history who have received the honour include Florence Nightingale (she was the first woman awarded the honour, in 1907); Winston Churchill (1946); TS Eliot (1948); EM Forster (1969) and Sir David Attenborough (2005). The Duke of Edinburgh received the award in 1968 and Prince Charles in 2002.

Though The Crown does not yet look beyond Thatcher’s premiership, in reality just 15 minutes after Thatcher’s final address with the Queen on 28 November 1990, John Major arrived at the palace and was formally invited to form a new administration.

Mrs Thatcher remains the only prime minister to have left office during a party leadership ballot.


Revisit the real history behind more episodes with our S4 episode guide to The Crown:


Diana’s trip to New York and an unravelling royal marriage

Elsewhere in the tenth episode of season 4 of The Crown, Princess Diana is seen embarking on one of her first major solo trips, to New York, during which she takes the highly unusual step of hugging a young boy with AIDS while visiting a hospital in Harlem.

Diana’s trip to the Big Apple in February 1989, which lasted three days, also included a trip to the Henry Street Settlement [a not-for-profit social service agency in the Lower East Side neighbourhood of Manhattan] and a charity gala at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in New York in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Des Willie/Netflix)
Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales in New York in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Des Willie/Netflix)

“It was a very successful trip from her point of view,” says royal biographer Penny Junor. “She did what she did best, which was being the caring, compassionate princess.

“It is absolutely true that she hugged a young boy with AIDS while visiting Harlem Hospital. This earned her a huge amount of respect at a time when people were shying away from AIDS victims. She did it for the cameras, but she was demonstrating that AIDS victims were still human beings and you shouldn’t shun them. She did a huge amount of good for this cause.”

Diana at Harlem Hospital, 1990
Diana, Princess of Wales during a visit to the AIDS unit of Harlem Hospital, February 1989. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

But in The Crown Charles slams Diana for “grandstanding”, chastising her for “theatrically hugging the wretched and the dispossessed” – a phrase that Junor strongly doubts he would have used. “I don’t think this would have been his language at all,” she told HistoryExtra. The Crown’s Charles criticises “the calculated vulgarity of the antics, knowing full well the headline they would get”. True to history, Charles was increasingly frustrated by what he saw as Diana being “constantly in competition with him, trying to make herself look good and him look bad. He found it very trying and hard to live with,” says Junor.

In The Crown, Charles’s argument with Diana reaches a head when he tells her he wants to wash his hands of the marriage. And elsewhere in the episode he is seen telling the Queen he wants to start separation proceedings after learning that Diana has resumed her affair with James Hewitt, a former cavalry officer in the British Army. But in reality, Charles and Diana did not separate until more than two years later, in 1992.

What happened? In the autumn of 1992, following “a disastrous trip to Korea”, says Penny Junor, “Charles and Diana were due to host a three-day shooting party at Sandringham, as they did every year during William and Harry’s autumn exeat from school. Sixteen friends and their children were invited, including the Parker Bowles family, and it was something the boys looked forward to. Less than a week beforehand, Charles discovered that Diana had decided to take William and Harry to stay with the Queen at Windsor instead. He explained the situation to the Queen who then spoke to Diana and she [Diana] said if she couldn’t go to Windsor, she would take the boys to Highgrove instead. Charles asked whether she might not at least let the boys come to the Sandringham party, even if she was determined to stay away herself, but she refused. Charles’s patience finally snapped. He told Diana that, painful as it would be for everyone, there was no alternative but to call a halt to the marriage.”

You can read more about Charles and Diana’s ill-fated marriage here.

Season 4 of The Crown wraps up with the royal family’s annual Christmas gathering at Sandringham. The drama chooses to show Prince Philip visiting Diana in her bedroom to check on her. But what starts out as fatherly reassurance quickly turns into a stark, borderline sinister, warning: when Diana tells him she feels she has “no option but to break away, officially”, Philip replies “I wouldn’t do that if I were you… let’s just say I can’t see it ending well for you.” To which Diana retorts, “I hope that isn’t a threat, sir?”

Did this really happen, did Prince Philip really threaten Diana? Penny Junor is doubtful. “None of us can know for sure because we weren’t at Sandringham, but I don’t think he would have threatened her,” she said. “I don’t even think he would have gone to her bedroom in the first place. It would be very odd for any father-in-law to go to a daughter-in-law’s bedroom, it sounds a bit creepy to me! There would have been plenty of other opportunities to have had a conversation.”

Read everything you need to know about season 4 of The Crown here. 

Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra 

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With thanks to historian Dominic Sandbrook, an expert on Margaret Thatcher and author of Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019), which explores the pivotal early years of Thatcher’s premiership in Britain: 1979–82, and to Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family