By Richard Kay for the Daily Mail 1 December 2017 |
Prince Charles, who has just turned 69, was beaming with pleasure after the news of Prince Harry’s engagement to actress Meghan Markle
The birthday cards were still up the other day when a flunky at Clarence House murmured that the Prince of Wales, who had just turned 69, was ‘now in his 70th year’.
Hardly the most penetrating observation, but one the aide knew he should not make a habit of voicing too often, and not in the Prince’s earshot.
Charles does not take kindly to being reminded of his mortality. He has always been proud of his fitness and the iron will that prevents him putting on weight — both qualities he inherited from his father Prince Philip, still ramrod straight at 96.
But in recent times, say friends, there has been a slight thickening of the princely waist, and the perennial back pain and old, nagging polo injuries have apparently been playing up a bit more. His face, reddened from the time he spends outside, has appeared somewhat drawn.
During a walkabout on a chilly day this week, the broken capillaries that have spread across his nose and cheeks were clearly visible, giving the unfair impression of a man who likes a tipple. His lips looked chapped.
Given all that, the news this week of Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle was an undoubted tonic. He beamed with pleasure as he broke off from an official visit to Poundbury, his beloved new town in Dorset, to speak of his happiness. It was, he declared, ‘marvellous’.
The Prince has always worried more about Harry than William and, of course, has been troubled by him more, too. But he has also allowed him the freedom to make his own choices in life, an attitude he shared with Princess Diana.
It’s pretty much a rule that opinion polls on the royals deliver results based on how much public exposure individuals have had, so Harry and Meghan will be the only show in town just now.
It’s perfectly possible that if people were asked who should be the next monarch today, Harry would top the poll. But that will never happen, and Charles will carry on regardless anyway.
Much the same thing happened six years ago, remember, when Prince William married Kate Middleton and the two were dubbed ‘Charles and Diana Mark II’.
For a Royal Family thin on glamour, the middle-class girl from Bucklebury, Berkshire, was a godsend. Tall and slim, she picked up as a royal fashion icon where Diana so tragically left off.
Prince Harry’s fiancée takes the glamour stakes to another level. To have one photogenic royal couple sharing the limelight was one thing: now Charles must get used to eking out what little is left.
The question troubling courtiers is whether this means a new crisis for the Prince of Wales in terms of the public’s view of him.
Certainly he hated being upstaged by Diana, and never came to terms with the fact that after his own wedding, the crowds who flocked to them wanted to see his wife, not him.
Paradoxically, the competition with Kate and William has largely not been an issue.
This in part has been down to the soothing presence of Charles’s second wife, Camilla.
The Duchess of Cornwall has been grateful at the spotlight shifting onto the young couple and their children, because it means she does not have to endure such an intense public gaze.
It is worth pointing out that the last time there was any serious talk of Charles stepping aside — and the Crown skipping a generation to allow William to follow the Queen — was just as Kate arrived officially on the scene.
But ever since, those concerns have subsided as the focus has been on the Prince of Wales taking on more duties from an ageing monarch.
Which is why the arrival of Meghan Markle has been concentrating minds at the Palace.
At the heart of the issue is Charles’s relationship with his sons.
In the 20 years since their mother’s death, it has ebbed and flowed.
But it has become noticeably cooler since they decided to appoint themselves the custodians of Diana’s memory, which they did so openly in the summer.
Back in 2004 and 2005, in the lead-up to Charles and Camilla’s own marriage, the brothers were very much in evidence, making supportive comments about their father and their stepmother.
Fast forward to this year, and that has changed. The two main TV documentaries marking the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, in which the young Princes participated, excised Charles. Only Diana, her work and her influence on them mattered.
Then there was Camilla’s own milestone, her 70th birthday in July. It was played down by Clarence House because of the Diana anniversary: a documentary on the Duchess was postponed.
It was expected that William and Harry would say something publicly about a stepmother to whom they had once been so welcoming.
But they did not. In fact, far from drawing closer to the Duchess as they got older, the boys have moved farther away. ‘They are not close to Camilla,’ says a friend. ‘The relationship has changed.’
An old chum of Diana’s who went to Kensington Palace earlier this year to discuss the boys’ plans for a statue of their mother told me: ‘It was pretty clear they don’t have a good word for Camilla.’
Does this matter? After all, second wives often fail to win over their stepchildren.
The short answer is yes. Courtiers believe that should Charles wish to change Camilla’s status when he becomes King and make her his Queen rather than ‘Princess Consort’, he will need the undiluted support of his sons.
So WILL they offer it? Charles does, after all, provide them with an income befitting princes of the royal blood. ‘He has little influence over the boys these days beyond the fact that he controls their money,’ says a friend.
‘But he’s so absorbed with his own life, with Camilla and the extra work he is accumulating from the Queen and his father, he doesn’t have the time anyway.’
There was also some brave talk by some of the ‘pro-Queen Camilla’ team around the Prince at the end of last year that her 70th birthday might be the time to rebrand her as the Princess of Wales.
But the young Princes should also remember that Charles’s unbending devotion to his divorcee wife has done much to change perceptions about what can be allowed in royal relationships.
A clergyman close to the Royal Family pointedly tells me: ‘The fact that the public is waiting for Harry to wed Meghan, unconcerned that she is a divorcee with divorced parents, is thanks to the battle Prince Charles fought to get Camilla accepted into “The Firm”.
With Diana’s memory very much to the fore, neither Harry nor his brother seems willing to acknowledge that.’
What is becoming clear to courtiers is that the retirement of Prince Philip is precipitating a shuffling of the royal jigsaw pieces, and in doing so placing greater demands on Charles’s time.
If Charles is at the Queen’s side for events, it sidelines Camilla. If William takes Philip’s place, as he did when the German president was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace this week, it sidelines Charles. It’s a condundrum.
For Prince Charles, seeing his younger son happily married next year will be a prelude to his own 70th birthday landmark. That will be a chance for him to take stock and ponder his role — and workload — in the coming years.
How fascinating that the gradual rundown in the Queen’s duties began very subtly soon after she turned 70, when she severed ties with a number of charities.
Suffice to say, however, that any aide foolish enough to suggest to Charles that he throttle back, rest those polo injuries and start to put his feet up will get very short shrift indeed.