The story behind The Crown: Mrs Thatcher becomes the UK’s first woman Prime Minister

Season 4 of the Netflix drama introduces one of the most influential and divisive characters of the Queen’s long reign – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Here’s how she came to power.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 8 December 2021 - 12.32am

Season 4 of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown introduces viewers – and the Queen – to a new Prime Minister who would not only make history but leave an indelible mark on the politics of the United Kingdom.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister, and episode 1 of the fourth season of The Crown shows her first audience with the Queen. Although the initial meeting between the country’s most powerful women – who were born just five months apart - is awkward, the two develop a mutual respect.

The Queen (played by Olivia Colman) is impressed by Mrs Thatcher’s work ethic and single-minded dedication to her role; the Prime Minister (Gillian Anderson) is in turn surprised by the monarch’s political knowledge, in particular her ability to predict almost every member of her first cabinet.  

On May 4, 1979, following a hard-fought campaign, the woman who would become known as the Iron Lady made history by becoming the UK’s first female Prime Minister.

Denis and Margaret Thatcher outside No.10 Downing Street in May 1979 Tim Graham/Getty

Thatcher’s Conservative party was elected with a majority of 43. The election had come about after Thatcher, as Leader of the Opposition, had tabled a motion of no confidence in James Callaghan’s minority Labour government.

The election came at the end of a tumultuous decade for Britain and British politics and immediately followed the Winter of Discontent which saw widespread public sector strikes with rubbish piling up in the streets and bodies going unburied.

The Tory party’s campaign was bolstered by help from nascent ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, as well as by promising to cut income tax, reduce public expenditure, make it easier for people to buy their own homes and curb the power of the unions.

Mrs Thatcher had also undergone an image overhaul since being appointed Tory leader in 1975. Theatre legend Laurence Olivier had acted as her voice coach and helped her moderate her naturally high speaking voice into the deeper tones which became so recognisable, and which Gillian Anderson portrays in The Crown. 

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix

When the 54-year-old Thatcher arrived at Downing Street to take up her new residence, she quoted a reconciliatory message from St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

The UK’s first female Prime Minister went on to dominate British politics for the next 11 years, before being ousted in November 1990. Her years in power were marked by economic growth, the privatisation of public services such as utilities, the selling off of council houses to their tenants and the rekindling of the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US, led by President Ronald Reagan.

The Thatcher years also saw rising unemployment, domestic unrest and inner-city riots and conflict between government and trade unions, the peak of which was the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85. The Falklands War was another flashpoint of her tenure: the 1982 conflict lasted only two months but cost 255 British and 649 Argentinian lives.

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix

In 1992 she was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven and in February 2007 became the first living British Prime Minister to be honoured with a statue in the Houses of Parliament.

Although her daughter Carol revealed in 2005 that her mother was suffering from dementia, Baroness Thatcher remained active in the House of Lords until 2010.

She died aged 87 in April 2013 at a suite at the Ritz Hotel in London. She received a ceremonial funeral, with full military honours and a service at St Paul's Cathedral. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were present, making it only the second funeral of one of her former Prime Ministers that the Queen had attended – the other was the funeral of her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, in 1965. 

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