David Cameron has admitted for the first time that he encouraged the Queen to intervene on the eve of the Scottish referendum.
The former prime minister told a BBC documentary he suggested the monarch could ‘raise an eyebrow’ during the campaign.
Soon after his intervention, the Queen told a well-wisher near Balmoral that she hoped ‘people would think very carefully about the future’.
It came on the weekend before the make-or-break referendum on September 18, 2014 and was seen as pivotal.
Mr Cameron said he was forced into the desperate move after a devastating poll showed Scotland was on the verge of voting for independence.
He strenuously denied that what he had done was ‘improper or unconstitutional’.
But his admission that he made the intervention is likely to be controversial because the Queen is supposed to be scrupulously neutral in matters of politics.
David Cameron meets the Queen at Balmoral where she made a coded but significant intervention in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum
The explosive admission was made in a two-part BBC1 documentary, The Cameron Years, which begins tonight and concludes next Thursday.
Mr Cameron said he was staying at Balmoral when a poll in The Sunday Times on September 7, 2014 put the Yes campaign ahead for the first time.
He described how it hit him ‘like a blow to the solar plexus’ and led to a ‘mounting sense of panic that this could go the wrong way’. Mr Cameron said: ‘I remember conversations I had with my private secretary and he had with the Queen’s private secretary and I had with the Queen’s private secretary, not asking for anything that would be in any way improper or unconstitutional but just a raising of the eyebrow, even, you know, a quarter of an inch, we thought would make a difference.’
A week later, on Sunday September 14, the Queen made her comment about the referendum as she left Crathie Kirk near her Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire.
She took the highly unusual step of stopping to talk to well-wishers outside the church, while aides pointedly invited surprised photographers to come and take pictures.
‘No’ campaigners welcomed the remarks, which received widespread press coverage and were interpreted by some as helpful to their cause.
Mr Cameron said: ‘It was certainly well covered [by the media]. Although the words were very limited, I think it helped to put a slightly different perception on things.’
Scots went on to vote 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of remaining in the UK in the referendum.
The BBC documentary was timed to coincide with the publication of Mr Cameron’s memoirs For The Record.
SNP leader Alex Salmond quit after losing the independence referendum by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in 2014. He was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon
The book makes no mention of getting the Queen involved in the referendum campaign. He merely writes: ‘Then, that Sunday, one week after the Sunday Times headline, the Queen spoke to some of those gathered outside Crathie Kirk, and said that she hoped Scots would think ‘very carefully’ about the vote. I was delighted.’
Mr Cameron wrote of his shock at the Sunday Times opinion poll that put Yes on 51 per cent and No on 49 per cent.
He said: ‘Shortly I’d be having an audience with the Queen at Balmoral Castle: she, the woman who had reigned over the United Kingdom for 62 years; me, the man who had allowed a vote on its possible disintegration.
‘Of course, she was completely charming – they all were. But as Prince Philip showed me the barbecue he had designed to roast grouse and sausages over charcoal when we were all up at the hillside bothy, the referendum was clearly on everyone’s mind.
‘They gingerly asked questions about it, but knew they shouldn’t express too strong an opinion.
‘That is the reality of a constitutional monarchy within a parliamentary democracy: a prime minister can instigate a sequence of events that could change the make-up of the country; the royal family can’t even express a view on it.’
Mr Cameron told his special adviser to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get the Scots on side. This led to a joint visit to Scotland with the then Lib Dem and Labour leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and a promise to rush out extra powers called ‘The Vow’.
Mr Cameron also said he regretted comments, caught on camera, in which he described how the Queen ‘purred down the line’ when he called to tell her Scotland had voted to stay in the UK. ‘I later made heartfelt apology to the Queen for commenting on our private exchange,’ he said.
Mr Cameron insisted he was ‘right to take the risk’ on the referendum, and called then Scottish first minister Alex Salmond ‘the slipperiest of characters’.
Last night Buckingham Palace declined to comment.