In Depth

The Queen’s biggest public gaffes

Monarch caught criticising leaders who ‘talk but don’t do’ before Cop26 climate conference

The Queen has been caught on camera expressing her frustration at a lack of action on climate change from world leaders.

“It’s really irritating when they talk but don’t do”, said the Queen, who was speaking with the Duchess of Cornwall and Elin Jones, presiding officer of the Senedd, after opening the Welsh parliament yesterday. 

With Cop26 only a matter of weeks away, the monarch said she “still” had “no idea” who was coming to the climate conference in Glasgow. The Queen, alongside select family members, will be in attendance for a diplomatic reception. 

Responding to the omission, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that “comments made in private should stay private”, but agreed that “we all share the desire to see progress made”.  

Many think first of the monarch’s late husband when it comes to public gaffes, but this is not the first time the usually tight-lipped Queen has let her true feelings slip.


Queen and Kate Middleton listen to President Xi Jinping speak at Buckingham Palace

Dominic Lipinski / WPA Pool/ Getty Images

Manners, please

In May 2016, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing described President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK as “extremely successful”. But the sentiment was not shared by Buckingham Palace’s residents. 

Speaking with Metropolitan Police commander Lucy D’Orsi during a garden party at the palace, the Queen was caught on video saying that the visiting Chinese officials had been “very rude” to British ambassador Barbara Woodward. D’Orsi said it had been “quite a testing time for me”, which the Queen confirmed she was aware of. 

D’Orsi said she felt the officials’ behaviour was “undiplomatic”, explaining that at one point they had “walked out of Lancaster House and told me that the trip was off”. “Extraordinary,” said the Queen.

The spokesperson in Beijing was unaware “of any threats” to cancel the visit, The New York Times reported.

The Queen’s comments came a day after the then prime minister David Cameron described Nigeria and Afghanistan’s governments as “fantastically corrupt”.


Brexit bombshell

On 8 March 2016, The Sun’s front page claimed “Queen backs Brexit”. The monarch had made “critical comments” about the EU on two separate occasions, according to the paper.

It was alleged that the monarch “let rip” at Nick Clegg during a lunch at Windsor Castle, telling the former deputy prime minister “that she believed the EU was heading in the wrong direction”. The “stinging reprimand went on for ‘quite a while’”, according to the newspaper’s source, though Clegg said he had “absolutely no recollection of it”. 

The Sun said the Queen had “revealed her Eurosceptic feelings” on another occasion, telling a group of MPs gathered at Buckingham Palace: “I don’t understand Europe.” The comment was made with “quite some venom and emotion”, according to the source.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) later ruled that The Sun’s headline was “significantly misleading”, but editor Tony Gallagher maintained his belief that the paper had not made a mistake. 

“The sources were so impeccable that we had no choice but to run the story the way that we did,” Gallagher said on Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t think were I doing this again tomorrow I would act in any way differently whatsoever.”


Queen and Margaret Thatcher in 1995

Adam Butler/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Front-page fallout

A “rumbling row” between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen “burst into full public view” in July 1986, when The Sunday Times ran a front page with the headline: “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher”.

Years later, the editor responsible for the splash, Andrew Neil, wrote in The Times that “newspapers had already hinted” at tensions between the two over sanctions against apartheid South Africa. But the report “went far beyond” that.

“Palace officials closest to the Queen” had informed the paper of the monarch’s true feelings towards Thatcher. “Uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”, were the words published by The Sunday Times.

The Queen’s press secretary Michael Shea later “outed himself” as the source. Neil said he had “no doubt” that Shea was “reflecting the views of the Queen and other senior members of the royal family… spiced up with a bit of his own anti-Thatcher slant”. 

The press secretary was the ultimate victim of the report, resigning from his role at the palace the following year.


Words of warning

The Queen in 2014 told members of the public she hoped Scots would “think very carefully about the future” when placing their votes in the Scottish independence referendum. 

Though the monarch’s comments “did not directly express a view”, The Times said they would be “interpreted by some on the No side as a plea to Scots not to base their decision on fleeting arguments”. 

Politicians were warned “not to drag the Queen into the debate”, the newspaper continued. But David Cameron did just that when he inadvertently confirmed the “open secret” that the Queen was in the remain camp, said The Guardian.

Cameron told the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg that the head of state had “purred down the line” when he called to tell her the referendum result. During an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the prime minister later said he was “extremely sorry and very embarrassed” for his blunder.


Man reads The Sun newspaper

Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

Family footage

The Sun broke what it described as an “important and interesting story” in July 2015 after obtaining footage from 1933 showing the Queen playing on the lawns of Balmoral with her mother and cousin, the future King Edward VIII. 

“The Queen Mother then raises her arm in the style of a Nazi salute and, after glancing towards her mother, the Queen mimics the gesture”, is how the BBC described the 17-second clip. Edward is also seen to make the salute. 

The “arresting, once private image” brought accusations of “a breach of privacy” from the Buckingham Palace and arguments of “national interest” from the publisher, said the broadcaster’s former royal correspondent Peter Hunt. The palace said it was “disappointing” that the film, supposedly from the Queen’s family archive, had “been obtained and exploited” by The Sun.  

The paper’s managing editor at the time told the BBC that the footage was a matter of “national, historical significance” from which “we shouldn’t shy away”.


International omission

In 2011, a Labour minister’s ex-girlfriend alleged that the topic of Turkey becoming a member of the European Union had elicited some unsavoury comments from the monarch. 

Author and broadcaster Joan Smith attended a Christmas party at the palace with her then partner Denis MacShane, and deigned to break royal protocol when she “refused to make a curtsy” for the monarch and the Duke of Edinburgh, according to The Telegraph.

Smith claimed that she then overheard a guest tell the monarch “we are hoping Turkey will come in” to the European Union “soon”.

“Oh, we don’t want Turkey to come in for a long time” was the Queen’s alleged retort.

A courtier told the newspaper that “while it is not beyond the realms of possibility” that the comment had been made by the monarch, “it may have been taken out of context”.


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