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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Queen at breaking point: The worst may lie ahead, writes RICHARD KAY

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Evening shadows were falling across the Long Walk at Windsor Castle when the call came through.

From her desk at the window of her private sitting room, the Queen could look up the broad avenue towards Frogmore where, less than two years ago, she had chuckled at the stream of lorries bringing the paraphernalia of Prince Harry’s life to his new home in her back garden.

Now Harry was calling from his hideaway in faraway California. For an hour, the monarch and her grandson talked on the phone, and by the time it was over the Duke of Sussex was one step further outside the Royal Family.

Over the past year, Harry has had more private conversations with the Queen than at any other time in his life. But none was more difficult than the one this week.

Both were said to be saddened at its conclusion. For the Queen the sadness was, perhaps, even deeper. It was not just that so much promise was unfulfilled, but that all the affection and indulgence shown to Harry had been so spectacularly ignored — or even thrown back in her face.

The Duke of Sussex called The Queen at Windsor Castle from his home in California but the hour-long conversion took Harry one step further outside the Royal Family. Pictured: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and his grandmother in 2018

The Duke of Sussex called The Queen at Windsor Castle from his home in California but the hour-long conversion took Harry one step further outside the Royal Family. Pictured: Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and his grandmother in 2018

No wonder the talk inside Windsor Castle all week has been about winding the clock back 25 years.

Then, the drama was about Princess Diana. This time it was about her younger son. And in both cases it concerned a television programme.

Diana’s choice of medium was the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, which was epic enough.

By choosing to sit down with Oprah Winfrey, Harry and Meghan have detonated a bombshell of their own by placing themselves in the hands of probably the most famous broadcaster on the planet.

To the royals and their advisers, TV confessionals of the kind presided over by Ms Winfrey are not compatible with royal life and the privileges that go with it.

Yet that was not the worst of it. The peevish disrespect Harry and Meghan showed the Queen yesterday — in a statement in which they appeared to lecture on the meaning of duty and service — sent shock waves throughout the Palace and beyond.

‘Outrageous,’ said one source.

To another, it was ‘unconscionable’ of the couple to have had the last word. ‘It showed such disrespect,’ he said.

Adding to this sense of anger and exasperation is Prince Philip’s absence as he remains in hospital in London. 

RICHARD KAY: 'By choosing to sit down with Oprah Winfrey, Harry and Meghan have detonated a bombshell of their own by placing themselves in the hands of probably the most famous broadcaster on the planet' (Queen pictured looking on as Meghan joins Royal Family)

RICHARD KAY: ‘By choosing to sit down with Oprah Winfrey, Harry and Meghan have detonated a bombshell of their own by placing themselves in the hands of probably the most famous broadcaster on the planet’ (Queen pictured looking on as Meghan joins Royal Family)

For almost a year there had been a gloomy sense of inevitability inside Buckingham Palace about the future of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whom courtiers have increasingly come to see as tone deaf in their public utterances.

First, there was the Netflix mega-deal announced last September, followed by those stage-managed photographs of the couple laying flowers at a Los Angeles cemetery to mark Remembrance Sunday — after Harry’s request to have a wreath laid at the Cenotaph on his behalf was refused. Both sent shudders through the Royal Household.

‘Even after almost a year’s absence there was a sense they had not grasped the central issue that they could not be part-time royals, with one foot in and one foot out,’ says a long-time Palace adviser.

Even so, the Queen was determined her offer of a year ago — that the door should not be closed to the couple until there had been a review of the first 12 months — should stand.

The Sussex view was that they could still contribute in a meaningful way, despite moving their lives to southern California.

But if the door remained ajar — just — it clanged shut when news of Oprah broke.

Weeks before Harry made that call to his grandmother to tell her about the forthcoming interview, the Queen’s views about what it means to be a working royal had not changed. The costumes and privileges that go with it — such as laying a Cenotaph wreath, even remotely — can be available only to those who do the job on a full-time basis.

She fervently hoped that the pull of those patronages he held, particularly the military ones, such as his figurehead role as Captain General of the Royal Marines, would be a compellingly strong draw for Harry to reconsider.

In the end, he still thought he could have it both ways. Yesterday, the decisiveness of the Palace showed, finally, that he cannot.

Stripping him — and Meghan — of their remaining honorary patronages would have happened anyway when the so-called ‘Megxit’ deadline expired next month.

If moving it forward suggests a royal ruthlessness, I understand it was a decision reached more in sorrow than anger. It also showed that the Queen’s legendary patience has a breaking point. And that her sense of duty is more important even than her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In short, she loves to keep them all close as a family — but there is a limit.

All the same, the speed with which organisations such as the National Theatre (of which the duchess was royal patron) and the Rugby Football Union (for which Harry had been a tireless champion) issued statements yesterday demonstrated that they had been prepared for the changes. Pointedly, the Palace statement referred only to Harry — indicating perhaps that the duchess had no formal role in the talks that have been ongoing. No wonder, when many inside royal circles refer icily to Meghan as ‘The American’.

When news of the Oprah interview emerged, it meant negotiations between the two sides, involving officials as well as the royals, had to be completed in a more tense atmosphere than they’d anticipated.

Even so, there was still room for discord.

The haste of Harry and Meghan’s own statement — issued at 4.30am Los Angeles time yesterday, in response to the one that had been released on behalf of the Queen — illustrated an astonishing lack of awareness by someone who is sixth in line to the throne and steeped in the royal tradition of service.

What had seemingly infuriated the Sussexes the most was this line in the middle of the pre-prepared Palace statement: ‘In stepping away from the work of the Royal Family, it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.’

Unspoken in all of this, and perhaps the hidden message behind the words, was that the exemplary life of public service that the Queen and the 99-year-old Duke of Edinburgh have led.

Over at Sussex headquarters, however, they hit the roof.

Harry and Meghan believe they are committed to public service, but they simply want to do it from outside the Royal Family and from outside Britain.

And given Harry’s closeness to his grandmother, he will have been angered at the way he felt he was being treated by the Queen’s most senior aides.

That is what triggered the couple’s extraordinary sharp response: ‘We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.’

Whatever pretence there had been until this point — that both sides were happy with the outcome — went up in a puff of smoke.

Last night aides spoke of their shock at the tone of the couple’s response, viewing it as a rebuke to the Queen, even an insult.

‘They didn’t think to let the Queen have the last word,’ says one insider. ‘They didn’t think that with Prince Philip in hospital, she might have enough on her plate.

‘And they didn’t think that there is a difference between charity and philanthropy and commitment to public duty. There is a world of difference: one is playing at it and one is doing it day after day, come rain or shine.

‘By responding as they did, the duke and duchess are thumbing their noses. I think it could turn out to be a strategic mistake.’

Palace aides had concluded that a non-working royal living in California couldn’t give the level of commitment to the military, the Commonwealth and charitable organisations, which all mean so much to the Queen, that might reasonably be expected.

The patronages will be ‘redistributed’ among those members of the Queen’s family who remain full-time working royals.

Buckingham Palace did try to hold out an olive branch at the end of their statement by saying that Harry and Meghan remained ‘much loved members of the family’. It echoed the statement they made in January 2020 when Harry and Meghan first announced they wanted out. But that is not how they see it in California.

The Sussexes believe other members of the Royal Family with HRH titles have the freedom to earn a private income — a thinly veiled reference to Harry’s first cousins, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Anxious not to alienate the couple further, aides are at pains to insist there is little prospect of further attempts to downgrade them by removing their HRH style or even the Sussex title, as some commentators have suggested.

The removal of Princess Diana’s HRH after her divorce from Prince Charles rebounded on the royals with the public, who viewed it as an act of spite.

There is also the fact that however dismayed they are by Harry, he remains a uniquely important figure to the future of the monarchy.

In the event of Charles and William both losing their lives — and, remember, they have both contracted Covid-19 — Harry would become regent to a young Prince George.

Throughout the saga, Palace officials have been playing close attention to public reaction.

A recent poll about royal popularity, still on the YouGov site, has been monitored. It shows Meghan languishing below both the Duchess of Cornwall and the Countess of Wessex, while Harry was outpolled by both Prince Charles and his non-royal cousin Zara Tindall.

There will be more twists and turns to come in this unedifying domestic drama.

The date of March 7, when Harry and Meghan genuflect before TV queen Oprah, is likely to be engraved in the royal memory just like Diana’s Panorama appearance on November 20, 1995.

The very real concern is that it will reopen other wounds, such as the rift between Harry and his brother — and between their wives. There is the fear of a repeat of the froideur that once existed between two other royal sisters-in-law — the Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor.

By striking as she has, the Queen hopes she will mitigate the need for further action. Only time will tell if that has been successful.

This post was first published on DailyMail.

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