No one, in seven decades of exemplary leadership, has ever accused the Queen of exaggeration.
She trades in understatement. When she says of the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that ‘these are complex matters’, she is talking of profound challenges which she understands better than anyone else.
And they are challenges which will not have come close to resolution at Sandringham yesterday afternoon.
Though Princess Diana might just have lost her royal status — it was not an act of spite; the style of ‘HRH’ which she acquired on marriage was duly removed when that marriage came to an end. Pictured in Sydney in 1996
The Queen trades in understatement. When she says of the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (pictured) that ‘these are complex matters’, she is talking of profound challenges which she understands better than anyone else
While ‘respecting’ the wish of Harry and Meghan ‘to live a more independent life’, Her Majesty will not have forgotten what happened the last time something similar was attempted. That was in 1996 during that tragically short period between the Princess of Wales’s divorce and her death the following year.
‘HRH The Princess of Wales’ had just become ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’ and was seeking to develop a new career for herself, one with an enhanced focus on particular charitable causes.
Though she might just have lost her royal status — it was not an act of spite; the style of ‘HRH’ which she acquired on marriage was duly removed when that marriage came to an end — the Princess had clearly lost none of her royal stardust as she flew to open a heart hospital in Sydney.
However, everyone involved in the visit had received a panic-stricken memo from the organisers explaining that the royal visitor was no longer actually royal.
‘Under no circumstances is she to be referred to or called Princess Diana,’ it explained, adding: ‘There is no requirement to curtsy.’
I was reporting on that visit and well remember that the international media contingent was so large that the local police chief had to book a theatre to announce press arrangements.
I have gone on to examine that four-day tour in detail for my book, Queen Of The World, since it was a sincere attempt by the Princess to structure a new non-royal international modus operandi for the mother of the future King. There are a number of striking parallels with some of the issues on the agenda at Sandringham yesterday.
British and Australian government officials were clearly beside themselves about issues of protocol, hence the memo from the organising charity.
The Queen (pictured attending church at Sandringham on Sunday). While ‘respecting’ the wish of Harry and Meghan ‘to live a more independent life’, Her Majesty will not have forgotten what happened the last time something similar was attempted
In the event, the public couldn’t give two hoots and did exactly what they had done on all previous occasions. They bowed, they curtsied, they called her ‘Lady Di’, ‘Princess Di’, ‘Your Royal Highness’ or plain ‘Diana’ as they saw fit and they were obsessed with every detail of the visit.
The Sydney Daily Telegraph assigned one reporter to monitor her every mouthful at the A$1,000-a-head gala dinner. ‘She ate one of three pieces of seared tuna, one half of roasted tomato, ignoring the squid ink-black noodles,’ ran a gushing report the following day.
In other words, very little had changed since the Princess’s transition to that ‘more independent life’. Except that everything had changed.
Though she still had police protection, she no longer had access to all the back-up support which had been part of the royal package.
Princess Diana had clearly lost none of her royal stardust as she flew to open a heart hospital in Sydney
On arrival, there was no official car to ferry her around Sydney — although there was still a smart motorcade waiting for her on the tarmac. This, it transpired, turned out to have been sponsored by a local Toyota dealership which proceeded to carry advertisements for itself throughout the visit.
Nor, in the absence of a private secretary or equerry, was there anyone capable of quietly but firmly retaining an appropriate level of dignity at some of the more public engagements.
When the Princess attended a fundraising lunch, a local public relations company had organised a closely choreographed walkabout through the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre afterwards — complete with allocated times for particular sponsors.
Even the Queen has never had a scripted walkabout (let alone a sponsored one).
Yet it is not so much the brazen commercialism which will linger in the Queen’s mind as much as the fact that she and Prince Philip were in the midst of an important state visit to Thailand at the same time.
And this very carefully prepared diplomatic mission — undertaken at the behest of her democratically-elected government — was entirely eclipsed. Though the Queen and her host, the King of Thailand, made no mention of it, senior Palace and Foreign & Commonwealth Office officials were dismayed.
More than 20 years later, all the officials involved have now retired but the Queen and the Prince of Wales will recall all that.
Nor will they have forgotten an even more unedifying spectacle a few months later as the newly divorced Duchess of York attended a charity ball in Vienna while mixing business with charitable endeavours.
She was paid £50,000 to launch her new autobiography in a Viennese shopping centre, accompanied by two fake guardsmen, an oompah band playing God Save The Queen and vendors selling ‘royal’ bed linen bearing the Duchess’s photograph.
There is not the remotest chance that the Sussexes will attempt anything as vulgar. But the complexion of any event can change very quickly when your obligation is to shareholders rather than the Crown. Where is the line to be drawn?
Nor will they have forgotten an even more unedifying spectacle a few months later as the newly divorced Duchess of York (pictured in 1997) attended a charity ball in Vienna while mixing business with charitable endeavours
And although Boris Johnson may be relieved that yesterday’s was one summit on British soil at which there was no seat for the Prime Minister, it now seems inevitable that he will need to become involved. For the fact that the Sussexes’ departure is now a matter of when, rather than if, has a direct impact on the organisation which is perhaps closest to the Queen’s heart. And it is one in which Mr Johnson plays a key role.
Last night’s statement by the Queen made no mention of the Commonwealth, although the Duke and Duchess last week pledged to ‘honour our duty’ to the Commonwealth in their new existence.
However, the whole question of the Sussexes’ future within the Commonwealth structure is not just a matter for the Queen. Though she is the titular Head of the Commonwealth, she does not hold executive authority.
It is a matter of pride among the membership that while they may be former colonies and dominions of the old British Empire, this is a free association of independent states. Any suggestion that they are bowing to semi-detached members of the ex-ruling family would not go down well.
Similarly, the members are sensitive to the merest sign of the old colonial power flexing its muscles. Yet flex them Boris Johnson must. That is because he is the ‘Chair-in-Office’ of the Commonwealth, the equivalent of holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
He holds the position because the British Government (under his predecessor, Theresa May), staged the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018. I now understand that he is to have talks shortly with the next ‘Chair-in-Office’, the Rwandan Prime Minister.
Paul Kagame, who will host the next Commonwealth summit this summer in Kigali, is due to visit London in the coming days.
Under Commonwealth rules, the current and future ‘Chairs’, together with the previous one (the Maltese PM), form what is called ‘the troika’. This powerful executive committee of the Commonwealth is authorised to take decisions on behalf of all 53 nations. It is always led by the incumbent ‘chair’ — who happens to be Boris Johnson.
Since the Duke of Sussex’s appointment as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador two years ago, he has played an important role in an organisation whose defining characteristic is youth; the majority of its 2.4 billion people are under the age of 30. His future role is a legitimate issue of concern for member states, as the Queen well knows.
Complex matters indeed. But then at least Boris Johnson is no stranger to the dilemmas of family turmoil.