The proof real royal power lies only with Charles and the Queen
ToMoRRoW, the Prince of Wales will continue his Pacific tour as he flies to one of furthest-flung lands of which he will one day be King. The Solomon Islands are not only one of the smallest of the Queen’s 16 realms but also the most amorphous (having changed shape several times during her reign thanks to volcanic activity).
In years gone by, it would have been the ideal place to park an embarrassed member of the Royal Family – like the Duke of York – for a spell of quiet exile as Governor-General. George vI and Winston Churchill did much the same when they packed off the troublesome Duke of Windsor to the Bahamas during the Second World War.
Except the world doesn’t work like that anymore. Even a remote outpost like the Solomons cannot be taken for granted.
These days, a modern monarchy must earn respect and, with it, affection. Gaining those precious commodities takes years. Losing them can happen overnight as both the Prince of Wales and the Queen are acutely aware.
That is why the two of them were so quick to agree a swift and decisive plan of action in response to this week’s implosion by the Duke of York.
The Royal Family can be very adept at soldiering on in the face of adversity. Historically, it can be slow to respond to a shifting public mood. But in the midst of a crisis which had already eclipsed five days of electioneering – and reduced Wednesday’s launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto to a sideshow – there could be no stoicism or dithering.
Both the Queen and her elder son were adamant that the duke’s duty was to quit. Anything else could leave the whole institution open to charges of constitutional misconduct. And that trumps any familial loyalties.
This has been a dismal year after a period of prolonged royal contentment. The sudden legal assault on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, followed by a bombshell documentary during their tour of South Africa only compounded the unsettled atmosphere at royal headquarters. There, officials were still reeling from the constitutional impact of the Queen being lured in to an unlawful prorogation of Parliament.
Hence the need for firm action this week. The phones have been busy between the Palace and the Prince of Wales’s roving office in New Zealand.
If royalists are to draw any positives from the events of recent days – and it might seem fanciful to imagine that there are any – then we can at least draw comfort from the fact that the monarch and the heir to the throne are as one on the big issues.
There is no question of who remains in charge. The Prince of Wales is not reaching for the royal controls. Since his younger brother’s self-inflicted disaster has started unfolding, the prince has left it to the Queen to exercise her authority. However, it has been made very clear that she does so with his full support. I understand that he is determined to ensure there is no backsliding back at royal HQ if – as may have been the case – the duke attempts to devise some sort of new private/public role for himself, having just announced a complete withdrawal from official duties.
Though recent months may have been coloured by rifts between younger members of the Royal Family, there is no division at the top end.
What we have been witnessing over the last 24 months is a slow and subtle but steady royal realignment. It has been a transfer of duties – though not of powers.
It started in earnest in November 2017 with a single sentence buried in pages of ceremonial detail ahead of Remembrance Sunday. The Queen would watch proceedings at the Cenotaph from a balcony while the Prince of Wales would lead the nation in silent tribute to the fallen.
Her position as Head of the Armed Forces had not changed one jot. It was merely a common sense decision to spare a monarch, now in her tenth decade, from having to walk backwards down a step on live television.
Just five months later, the Queen welcomed the 53 nations of the Commonwealth to a summit at Buckingham Palace. The relatively harmonious transition from Empire to a free association of equal nations, started by her father, has been one of her greatest achievements.
HoWEvER, the role of Head of the Commonwealth has never been a hereditary one. Now the Queen was asking the member states to grant the same title to the Prince of Wales in due course. Though this ‘family of nations’ is quite capable of a furious row about the most footling issue, they were all unanimous on this point. The Prince was formally approved as Head-in-waiting.
overseas, the prince’s tours have taken on a new, enhanced status following the Queen’s decision to curtail all travel abroad. Though state banquets are traditionally reserved for heads of state, Ghana produced one for the prince and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2018.
Back home, the Duke of Edinburgh’s gradual withdrawal from public duties continued. His appearance at the 2017 state visit of the King of Spain was his last on this sort of occasion. At the next state visits, for the King of Holland in 2018 and Donald Trump in June of this year, it was the prince who performed the role of consort.
When Mr Trump held the traditional return banquet at the US ambassador’s residence in Regent’s Park, the prince stood in for the Queen.
At this year’s commemorations for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it was the prince who saluted veterans in Normandy. When the Queen marked the 20th anniversary of the Scottish parliament this summer – a very important moment, given the fissures in the Union – she did so with the prince firmly at her side.
It was the same when she processed through Westminster for last month’s State opening of Parliament. And so it continues.
It is clear that the Queen still misses her former Private Secretary, Sir Christopher (now Lord) Geidt. He was the discreet architect of those triumphal years either side of the Diamond Jubilee – steering the monarchy around potential pitfalls like coalition politics or reforms to the royal succession – but was edged out in a mysterious restructuring of the Royal Household in 2017.
He did not endear himself to the Duke of York when, at the climax of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, he finalised arrangements for the appearance on the palace balcony. It was limited to the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles’s family.
While the Queen’s official birthday might be an occasion for a full family turnout on the balcony, the Jubilee was to be a streamlined affair.
‘Prince Andrew was furious about that and has never forgotten it,’ says one who well remembers the ducal wrath. The duke felt that it was not just a personal humiliation but an insult to his daughters, arguing that both enjoyed the style of HRH.
The Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex, in contrast, have always declined royal status for their children.
WHILE we can all understand the duke’s paternal wish to ensure the best for his daughters, it is a simple fact of royal life that those outside the immediate line of succession occupy a different orbit.
The Prince of Wales is only too aware of the perils of a monarchy that appears overweight. Like the Queen and the Government, he is extremely grateful for the work – much of it unsung – by those siblings and cousins who currently perform official duties.
You need only follow a regional tour by the Princess Royal or the Earl and Countess of Wessex to see the way in which they spread the royal load, even if it does not make the national media. The same goes for the Gloucesters and Kents, who are now all well past retirement age.
But the same will not apply to their respective children. All are pursuing careers outside the royal fold. The same goes for the Duke of York’s daughters, though they continue to live on the royal estate.
In a hereditary institution that is just the way it goes. Neither the Queen nor the Prince of Wales will budge on that.
We used to hear a lot about the pre-eminence of the ‘Fab Four’ – as excited commentators would brand the Cambridges and Sussexes until the recent parting of the ways.
Real royal power, however, rests firmly with the ‘Top Two’.