The row involving the King hosting the EU chief just hours after she agreed a new Brexit deal with Rishi Sunak shows how the monarch has to “tread carefully” over his political role to a greater extent than his late mother, constitutional experts have said.
The DUP suggested on Tuesday it might issue a formal complaint to Buckingham Palace after the monarch met European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at Windsor Castle in the wake of the new trading rules being struck for Northern Ireland.
Criticism of the King has taken some in government by surprise, given both the monarch and Queen Elizabeth have held similar meetings in the margins of major political events, and threatened to overshadow the carefully choreographed historical moment.
But it underlined how the King is likely to attract more criticism over his meetings with political figures than his late mother because of his long-held reputation as an activist prince.
Dr Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University, told i that if the Queen had met Ms von der Leyen after the Windsor Framework had been agreed, “I don’t think we would have noticed that much because her own impartiality, and being ‘above’ politics, was so well established.
“She also had a level of popularity that meant that perhaps she wasn’t placed under quite as much scrutiny as the King is. There is a much greater interest in the moment (for all sorts of reasons) into what the monarchy is doing.
“I think this shows how the King has to tread carefully.”
Dr Prescott added: “I think this shows that there’s a need to try to scope out the political role of the monarchy. How much of what we expect from the monarchy is because of what Elizabeth II did? But then, how much of that is because of underlying changes to the UK constitution during those 70 years? The answer to those questions may well be a little different.”
The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson warned that the King would come to “regret” his decision to host Ms von der Leyen so close to a politically sensitive moment.
Mr Wilson told the Daily Telegraph’s Chopper’s Politics podcast: “It’s a decision that the King will come to regret in the future. It’s a very, very dangerous thing that has been done.
“The King has to explain that. But the one thing I do know is that it is a bad decision. And if he keeps going down this route and politicising the monarchy, then the status that his mother had, he will never acquire. And it will put the monarch in jeopardy because people will simply see it as a partisan rather than a national institution.”
Even the circumstances of Monday’s meeting remain shrouded in mystery, with the Palace, Downing Street and the EU all denying they were responsible for proposing the talks.
Protocol dictates that the monarch is advised by the government when to meet world leaders – this was the case when the King hosted President Zelensky for tea at Buckingham Palace in February.
Last October, the then prime minister Liz Truss asked the King not to attend the world climate Cop27 talks in Egypt, despite the monarch, who has a decades-long history of campaigning on the environment, reportedly “champing at the bit” to go. Mr Sunak upheld that advice when he succeeded Ms Truss as PM.
In the case of Ms von der Leyen, senior government sources suggested on Monday that it had been a request by Buckingham Palace, and that the King ultimately decides who he meets. Yet the palace insisted the talks had been based on “government advice”.
During her reign, the Queen very rarely waded into politics – and when she did so it was at the behest of Downing Street. When she told a well-wisher outside Crathie Kirk near Balmoral, on the eve of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, that she hoped “people will think very carefully about the future” it was no off-the-cuff remark but a carefully-staged intervention requested by the then-PM David Cameron.
Yet given his overtly political interventions as Prince of Wales – including his notorious “black spider memos” to ministers – it is a reputation he has consciously tried to play down since becoming monarch.
When the new King addressed both houses of Parliament less than a week after his mother’s death last September, he pledged to uphold the “vital parliamentary traditions to which members of both houses dedicate yourselves with such personal commitment, for the betterment of us all” adding that “Parliament is the living and breathing instrument of our democracy”.
It was a very pointed message to assembled MPs and peers that he would not be meddling in politics now he was on the throne.
Dr Prescott added: “The King did not travel to Cop, following the advice of Liz Truss, although we all know that he probably would have done had he been allowed. Indeed, this is quite a good example of his understanding his role.”
The fact that Monday’s meeting with Ms von der Leyen was in the context of Brexit – one of the most contentious political issues for decades – only magnifies the sensitivities of the King’s role in those talks.
Dr Prescott said: “Had the King met, say, the Japanese Prime Minister as part of a process of signing a UK/Japan trade agreement, then you simply wouldn’t have the same controversy. Any such agreement might have its own issues, but it’s not quite the same or as intense.”
In fact, the King’s talks with the European president may be part of a wider strategy by the palace and government to forge closer ties with the Continent in the wake of Brexit, the constitutional expert suggested.
Dr Prescott said: “This may even be part of a broader strategy. The King’s first overseas visit looks like it will be to France (and not somewhere in the Commonwealth) – which perhaps shows priority within the government of engaging with Europe.”