Did Margaret Thatcher’s Son Really Go Missing?

The incident caused the former Prime Minister international embarrassment.

Des Willie/Netflix

It's hard not to muddy the waters between fact and fiction when watching Netflix's The Crown. The Royal Family are so notoriously private that it's hard to think of the actors and the storylines as the honest truth. Joining the lineup for The Crown Season 4 is Margaret Thatcher (played the inimitable Gillian Anderson). As you can imagine, the famed former British Prime Minister has a number of intriguing scenes, but one of the more harrowing is when her son Mark goes missing. But did Margaret Thatcher’s son really disappear?

Margaret Thatcher gave birth to Mark and his twin sister, Carol, in 1953, when she was a barrister, six years before entering Parliament. After reinventing himself as a racing driver aged 28, Mark Thatcher took part in the Paris-Dakar rally, and went missing for six days whilst driving a Peugeot 504. Mark — who later admitted in The Guardian he was unprepared for the race — his French co-driver, Anne-Charlotte Verney, and their mechanic were declared missing on 12 January in the Sahara Desert.

Mark Thatcher preparing for the Bathurst race in 1979. Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

The result was a full-blown international rescue mission. Mark’s father, Sir Denis Thatcher, flew to Dakar, where a large-scale search was launched, including six military aircraft from three countries and Algerian ground troops. Six days after going missing, the Algerian military discovered Mark’s party safe and well, but 50 km (31 miles) off course

This caused international embarrassment to the Prime Minister. His mother insisted on personally paying £2,000 towards the cost of the search, and footed a further unpaid 11,500 Algerian dinar hotel bill, one third of which was for drinks, to prevent further diplomatic embarrassment.

Explaining what had happened in a 2004 interview with The Guardian, Mark wrote: “So The Boss (the prime minister) does entirely the right thing, picks up the phone to the ambassador in Algiers and says, ‘Can you find out what is going on?’ The ambassador then rings the prefect of the region who says there are four people missing and that I am one of them.”

Mark was seen to be his mother's favourite child. Per the Guardian, Thatcher was visibly very upset and distressed at the time, and said later the scare put her other worries “into perspective”. Whilst Thatcher’s favoritism has never been publicly confirmed, sources close to the family and her daughter Carol have often spoken of their “strained” relationship, something which is expected to be explored in season four of The Crown.

Margaret Thatcher with her husband Sir Dennis and son Mark when she won the 1979 general election. Hulton Deutsch/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Even towards the end of Thatcher’s life, when asked about her mother's complaints of not seeing her grandchildren often, Carol was unsympathetic: “A mother cannot reasonably expect her grownup children to boomerang back, gushing cosiness, and make up for lost time. Absentee mum, then gran in overdrive is not an equation that balances.” Ouch.