Remember Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary between 1978 and 1987? You soon will when you see the fourth season of The Crown.
In episode eight, Shea (who died in 2009) is the central figure. It tells the dramatic story of the 1985 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Bahamas, attended by Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, which would lead to the PM’s unprecedented clash with the monarch – and to Shea’s resignation.
The Crown presents Shea as the fall guy for the clash between Buckingham Palace and Number 10. What was the truth? Was he really stitched up by Her Majesty and cast on the scrapheap to save her skin, as The Crown implies?
The Commonwealth row was over whether economic sanctions should be imposed on South Africa for its apartheid policy. The vast majority of Commonwealth members were in favour of imposing sanctions. Thatcher, although she thought apartheid was unjust and a kind of oppressive “racial socialism”, held out against them.
In his official biography of Thatcher, Charles Moore writes, “She wished to assert Britain’s right to its own trade –Britain was one of South Africa’s largest trading partners and the largest single investor… She believed that British influence could do more for the multi-racial future of South Africa by engaging with its white government than by shunning it.”
And so there ensued a simmering row that dominated the Nassau meeting. As depicted in The Crown, it’s a pantomime farce, as all the other members of the Commonwealth try to get Thatcher to sign off on sanctions against South Africa. In endless comings and goings, Thatcher finally agrees to make a compromise, approving of using the word “signals” to describe what are effectively sanctions.
The truth, as revealed in Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography, was slightly different. In the build-up to the meeting, the Prime Minister became aware that the Queen wanted a Commonwealth agreement over South Africa.
As the meeting began in Nassau, leader after leader tried to persuade Thatcher of the case for sanctions. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was the first to buttonhole her. Then Bob Hawke, the Australian PM, tried his luck. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe pressured her. Kaunda even “sobbed into his big white handkerchief” in front of her over the prospect of the break-up of the Commonwealth over sanctions.
The pro-sanctions leaders laid out a proposed agreement on sanctions. Thatcher’s team then prepared their own version.
Things became worse. After another acrimonious meeting with her fellow leaders, Thatcher later said she “had never been so insulted as I had by the people in that room”.
Finally, at 5pm that day, a text was agreed by Thatcher and the other leaders, agreeing that the Commonwealth would send an Eminent Persons Group to see if progress on ending apartheid was going well. If not, the issue of sanctions – or “further measures”, the words preferred by Thatcher – would be reopened.
When the Eminent Persons Group declared there was no progress on apartheid, the pressure on Thatcher to accept sanctions increased in the summer of 1986, when another Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was held in London, hosted by Thatcher.
The Queen, taking her Balmoral break, was so attached to the Commonwealth that she interrupted her summer holiday to come down to London for the meeting.
At this moment, on July 20 1986, the Sunday Times broke the report that sparked off the train of events leading to Michael Shea’s downfall.
That day, the paper splashed with the headline, “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher.” The Sunday Times said it was relying on “several briefings by the Queen’s advisers, who were fully aware it would be published”. The paper went on to say the Queen thought Thatcher’s approach was “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”.
It alleged the Queen thought Thatcher had gone too far in the Miners’ Strike, and in allowing American bombers to strike Libya from British bases. Calling Elizabeth II “the African Queen”, the paper also suggested that the Queen was at odds with Thatcher over the sanctions issue.
Buckingham Palace swiftly put out a statement: “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.”
Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, was dumbfounded by the statement – because the story’s source was none other than Michael Shea, the Queen’s own press secretary.
Not long after, the Queen rang Thatcher to say, according to Sir William Heseltine, the Queen’s private secretary, that she “could not imagine how the story came to be circulated, and anyway it bears no relation to the truth as I understand it”.
Thatcher was nonetheless worried about how the story would play: “Those little old ladies will say ‘Mrs Thatcher is upsetting the Queen.’ I’ll lose votes.”
The Crown, as it often does in its very enjoyable but highly unreliable way, ends up exaggerating the drama. It suggests the Queen actively lobbied against Mrs Thatcher, and that Shea was her loyal foot-soldier; and that he had to walk the plank when the row between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street flared up.
In fact, it looks like Shea had taken matters into his own hands when briefing the Sunday Times and had, to use a later political scandal, “sexed up” the issue. As Charles Moore writes: “The government’s low opinion of Michael Shea’s behaviour was borne in upon Buckingham Palace and he was quietly edged out of his post – ‘Not fast enough’, in the view of Sir William Heseltine.”
When Shea resigned in 1987, it was after nine years of success, the South African incident apart. He had nimbly managed to negotiate the Queen’s press coverage through scandals such as the exposure of Anthony Blunt, former Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, as a Russian spy. He represented the monarch, too, in the royal crisis in 1982, when Michael Fagan, an unemployed drifter, managed to break into Buckingham Palace and chat to the Queen in her bedroom.
Shea, who’d been brought up in Scotland, went to Gordonstoun, the same school as the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen’s sons. After attending Edinburgh University, he joined the Foreign Office, working in Ghana, West Germany, Romania and New York.
In 1971, while serving in Bonn, he wrote his first thriller, Sonntag, under the pseudonym Michael Sinclair. A German spy thriller, in the mould of John Le Carré, it sold well and was translated into eight languages. A pseudonym was useful for someone working in the diplomatic services, though Shea didn’t do much to conceal his real identity, using his real first name and both his real initials.
It was also during his diplomatic career that he married Mona Stensen, a Norwegian diplomat, with whom he had two children. He was said to have got on well with the Queen, accompanying her on tours of 65 countries. At their first meeting, she beckoned him over to the sofa, saying, “Come and sit here. I am glad you are going to join us.”
He left the Palace before the stream of revelations about the Prince and Princess of Wales started pouring out. But, still, he regretted granting so much access to the press, later saying, “There was a period where there were too many revealing in-depth interviews going on. I take certain blame for some of the earlier affairs because I was constantly trying to open the door – roll back the carpet a bit. Too much was given away about private lives.”
In 1981, Shea asked the press at a palace meeting to back off from Diana, who that year had married Charles. He then asked them to meet the Queen and Prince Philip. The late WF Deedes of The Telegraph remembered, “I was in a small group with the Queen when she observed quietly of a recent incident with photographers, ‘It’s hard on a girl if she can’t go to the local sweetshop without being cornered by photographers.’
“The then-editor of the News of the World said rather plaintively, ‘Why couldn’t she send a footman for the sweets?’ ‘I think,’ said the Queen, ‘that is the most pompous remark I have ever heard in my life.’”
Shea always maintained he’d never been indiscreet in the 1986 Commonwealth affair. But he bore no malice to the Royal family. He returned to his thriller-writing career, publishing more than 20 books, including a memoir and works on leadership, diplomacy and business.
Several of the books were inspired by his time in the Foreign Office and his royal career. His 1996 novel, Spin Doctor, starred a spin doctor who, like Shea at Buckingham Palace, had a high-profile press relations job, advising top politicians and businessmen. In Spinoff (2000), the Prime Minister is taken ill with a strange disease, and it’s up to his spin doctor to keep it secret.
But he never put the boot into the Queen, as he might have done if he’d really thought she’d done the dirty on him, as The Crown implies.
He retained an irritation only with the gentlemen of the press he’d had had to deal with. “Editors and journalists select their victim kings, garland them, fete them and put them upon their pedestals," he said. "Then, after a brief day of glory, they ritually slaughter them.”
He received honours from the Queen as a Lieutenant and Commander of the Victorian Order – even if he didn’t get the knighthood that her press secretaries usually do.
He remained loyal to the monarch until his death in 2009, aged 71. He once said, “I only once saw the Queen very angry with one of her offspring. That was when the young person concerned was rude and unthinking to a junior member of staff who was waiting at table. “He didn’t do it again.”
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)