Over Christmas and the New Year I was writing a chapter on King Edward III for the broadcaster and publisher Iain Dale’s upcoming book on the Kings and Queens of England. Edward had to seize control of the throne from the grasp of his mother and her lover who had led the successful rebellion to depose his father, King Edward II. His reign, which is one of the longest in English history at 50 years, saw a series of events which included: the need to conciliate his supporters and secure his grip on power, a bout of plague which killed many people resulting in labour shortage and significant inflation, an unsuccessful attempt to control labour movement and control wages which led to social unrest, constant battles with Scotland and France, and as his time in office went on his struggle to keep control of events. Most of these issues would be eerily familiar to those who govern us today.
Last week both the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, sought to set the terms of political engagement for the year ahead. Both delivered serious and substantial speeches and given recent political events that have swept through and over the Conservative and Labour parties, for many this is a disorientating, if welcome, experience. We are all having to readjust to a politics based on policy and ideas rather than personality and antics. This is good news for the country given the challenges we are facing. The nation’s news editors, however, have had no need to despair for into the void has swiftly stepped the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose thoughts and views have more than amply provided startling headlines and endless copy and comment.
The Duke clearly feels much hurt and anger. It’s a reasonable guess to think that what he has said has also caused much hurt and anger. Distressingly for all concerned there is more than enough of both to go around, but so far nothing we have seen or heard suggests that for the King and for the Monarchy this amounts to anything more than a hurtful and distressing period for the Royal Family. It is a saga that is likely to keep rolling up to the Coronation in May, some five months away, with a will they/won’t they attend theme providing the recurring undercurrent. Over the many hundreds of years this family has kept a good grip on the throne, however, they have weathered much worse and there can be little doubt that, in the end, they will do so again now. For the rest of us we are but weary bystanders. Yet for Messrs Sunak and Starmer, the situation presents several serious pitfalls.
For a start, royal dramas dominate headlines and news cycles. They consume the oxygen of media attention and divert attention away from Westminster. The Prime Minister is seeking to stamp his authority not only on his party at Westminster but to generate some momentum in attracting positive attention for his policy agenda. He cannot afford to lose a day of public attention to what he is doing. Keir Starmer is trying to solidify his grip on his poll lead and establish the thought in our minds that his victory at the next General Election is both desirable as well as inevitable. He too cannot afford to lose a day of our attention to other things, diverting though they might well be.
A key, if very discrete, part of a Prime Minister’s job is to be the Monarch’s principal advisor and when necessary public defender. Any ongoing threat to the stability of the Monarchy must be a concern to a Prime Minister, and the person who seeks the job. It’s not just public attention that is sucked away from the serious business of the country but the private time of the Prime Minister, who can ill afford to be diverted from his principal duties.
It is difficult to see how the Duke and Duchess can achieve any, let alone all, of what they say they want by publishing books and giving interviews. What they can do is significantly contribute to diverting attention away from the serious business of the country and the important political debates we need to settle the next phase of the future of the country. It is difficult to think many will be very sympathetic if they continue their public campaign on issues which plainly should be addressed and resolved in private.