The Daily Telegraph
Meeting with EU chief may be storm in teacup but King will struggle to stay out of political fray
THE King’s meeting yesterday with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, was branded “constitutionally unwise”, “crass” and “antagonistic.”
While Buckingham Palace insisted that their cosy tête-à-tête over tea was simply business as usual for a head of state, Unionists and Brexiteer Conservatives warned that His Majesty was being dragged into politics in order to sell Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal.
Royal commentator Peter Hunt called it “a very serious error” and added: “He’s abandoned his unifying role and entered the political fray in a foolish bid to be seen as statesmanlike. History won’t be kind. Someone’s head will roll.” Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-mogg warned Mr Sunak against using the monarch for his “own transient political imperatives”.
Baroness Arlene Foster, a former DUP leader, tweeted: “I cannot quite believe that No10 would ask HM the King to become involved in the finalising of a deal as controversial as this one ... it’s crass and will go down very badly in NI. We must remember this is not the King’s decision but the Government who it appears are tone deaf.”
It is unlikely to be the last time the King is accused of being used as a political pawn. As Prince of Wales, he fostered close ties with politicians over many decades and became known for his lobbying on issues, as borne out by the notorious “black spider” memos.
However, even his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was not immune from being drawn into the political fray, most notably in 2014 when, in the final days of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, she told wellwishers outside a church in Aberdeenshire that she hoped voters would “think very carefully about the future”.
David Cameron later claimed that the Queen had “purred down the line” after he phoned to tell her that Scotland had voted to remain in the Union.
In March 2016, Buckingham Palace complained to the press regulator, Ipso, over a “misleading” story on the front page of The Sun claiming that the Queen backed Brexit. The tabloid stood by its story, insisting it had two sources for the claim that the Queen had “let rip” at
deputy prime minister Nick Clegg about Europe at a lunch at Windsor Castle.
Laura Kuenssberg, as BBC political editor, revealed that she too had been told about the comment, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: “Apparently at this lunch she said ‘I don’t see why we can’t just get out. What’s the problem?’.”
The late monarch is also said to have asked Tony Blair when he was prime minister not to ban fox-hunting and declassified files reveal she was in such a “rage” with Margaret Thatcher over her refusal to back sanctions against apartheid in South Africa that she considered scrapping the weekly audience.
Such moments were few and far between in the context of an historic 70-year reign. But Charles may find himself navigating more of a tightrope given the political turmoil within his first months on the throne. He will undoubtedly become part of the effort to reset the UK’S relations with Europe, just as his mother played a role in reconciliation in Northern Ireland by shaking hands with Martin Mcguinness, the former IRA commander, in June 2012.
Next month, the King is expected to make his first state visits as monarch with trips to France and Germany, despite expectations that his first regal visit would be to a Commonwealth nation. It has already prompted criticism that he is on an “EU schmooze”.
Royal sources insisted it would have been odd for the King not to meet Mrs von der Leyen yesterday while she was in Windsor. Buckingham Palace said the decision was made on the advice of the Prime Minister and insisted they would discuss “a range of topics” – not simply the Brexit deal signed just a couple of hours earlier, which happened to be announced at the Windsor Guildhall, where Charles and Camilla wed in 2005.
“The King is pleased to meet any world leader if they are visiting Britain and it is the Government’s advice that he should do so,” a spokesman said.
No10 appeared to contradict the palace’s stance by suggesting that the final call rested solely with the King. But royal sources quashed any suggestion of discord between the two camps. “Advice is sought, advice is given and advice is accepted,” one courtier noted. “Of course there is a theoretical space in which the King could opt not to heed such advice but that does not happen.”
Both the Government and the palace insisted that the meeting was “no different” to the many others the King had held recently with foreign leaders.
However, perhaps the biggest controversy lies in the decision to call the deal the Windsor Framework, which suggests royal approval, despite the King’s lack of involvement in the talks.
Both the King and his mother before him have hosted many political leaders and heads of state for tea.
The monarch and his advisers will be keen to ensure, in the future, that such symbolic gestures cannot be seized upon for political gain.