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Challenge For Charles To Take On His Mother’s Mantle As UK’s Top Diplomat

King Charles' first foreign trip to Germany in March was a success as he tries to emulate his late mother as the UK's top diplomat (Credit: Alamy)

6 min read

As Charles prepares to be crowned, the new King faces the challenge of not only emulating his mother Queen Elizabeth II as a head of state, but as the UK’s biggest diplomatic asset.

The scope of the monarch’s role in British politics is still on paper, extraordinary, from formally appointing ministers to declaring war, but in practice they exercise very little of their constitutional powers, instead deferring to the government of the day and remaining politically neutral.

But where they do still retain a significant role is with so-called “soft power”. The late Queen was often described as the country’s greatest diplomat, hosting world leaders and representing the UK abroad, as well as being a trusted and sympathetic adviser to more than a dozen prime ministers at thousands of weekly audiences at Buckingham Palace over the decades of her reign.

She was also known to be a voracious consumer of political gossip, and an assiduous reader of government papers, delivered to her every day in her own ministerial red box.

The Queen also received a daily briefing from a senior member of the government Whips Office, known as the Vice Chamberlain of the Household, who gave a digest of what was happening in Westminster that went well beyond what was happening in the House of Commons chamber.

Kris Hopkins was a Conservative MP from 2010 to 2017, and was Vice Chamberlain between 2015 and 2016, but told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown he didn’t initially want to have to write the missive to her majesty.

“I'll be honest with you, when I started I didn't want to do it,” he said. “But after the first audience, Her Majesty basically said, ‘if you're going to write this 1,000-word piece every day, I don't want to know about Hansard, I want a light version of this’.

“So I started writing about ‘petit’ Patel, ‘pieman’ Pickles, ‘justice’ Gove and his deputies.”

As well as coming up with nicknames for the Cabinet ministers of the day he also stole the sobriquet ‘Mr Squeaker’ to describe the Commons Speaker John Bercow from sketchwriter Quentin Letts, much to the Queen’s amusement.

"Her favourite character was ‘Mr Squeaker’, which obviously I stole from Quentin," he explained. 

"One audience came to a conclusion, I was leaving and I was trying not to step on a corgi as I was reversing out of the room, and then she just said ‘my favourite character is Mr Squeaker’, and I mean, that is the best day of my life.”

He said she “wanted to know what was going on in the tea room, she wanted to know what the relationships with people were, and how you thought about things.” This helped when it came to discussing political matters with the PM at their regular meetings.

The current Vice Chamberlain, and the first woman to hold the role, Tory MP Jo Churchill, now has the job of writing to Charles every day on the goings on in Parliament, as the new monarch seeks to navigate his way through politics in his changed role.

The King will have to balance his position as an asset at the behest of the government’s own diplomatic ambition with staying true to his own long-held, passionate beliefs in areas such as the environment.

The tensions in this position were exposed when his plan to make his first state visit after taking over the crown to go to Egypt for the COP27 climate conference was blocked by then-PM Liz Truss.

Bob Morris from the UCL’s Constitution Unit said the row over COP “showed how tightly regulated the monarchy is by its own government, which sets the rules". 

"The foreign visits are not done with the aspiration of the King but by a committee chaired by the Foreign Office permanent secretary to fit in with the current diplomacy and aims of the government,” he added. 

Morris believes that Charles appears to understand the new limits on his ability to speak out as he moves from Prince to King. “He's referred to that several times, and he made the point in his initial address to the nation that he understood that he couldn't perhaps show the same sort of interest to the same degree that he had had in the past,” he said.

But he has shown aptitude in forging diplomatic links so far, striking up a friendship with Vlodomyr Zelensky when the Ukrainian leader visited the UK in February, and his first official trip abroad to Germany at the end of March was deemed extremely successful both in the UK and the EU, after he addressed the Bundestag in German.

Dr Michelle Clement, researcher in residence at No 10 and a lecturer at King’s College London, said the monarchy retains “this incredible power to convene”, and to draw people together in state buildings that nobody else has access to, and can build a network of relationships that others can’t.

She told The Rundown the death of the Queen also took with it a huge amount of institutional memory, pointing out that Her Majesty remarked she knew not just most world leaders, but most of their fathers too. But she noted that Charles has long been preparing for this position.

“We know that he had practice audiences with David Cameron, and so I imagine he must be well prepared”, she said. The change in monarch then, may not lead to such a profound change in the role’s political impact.

The end of the second Elizabethan era and the beginning of the new Carolean age was hoped by Republicans to bring about a debate on the future role of the Royal Family, not least in politics, but as Morris points out polling in favour of an elected head of state remains stuck around the 25 per cent mark.

“At the moment, it hasn't had a great Republican moment on the death of the Queen,” he said. “Now we shall see, it all depends on how far the monarchy continues to adjust to the changed condition of life in Britain.”

Hopkins added: “I think a lot of people are still mourning the loss of the Queen. And I think this moment that Charles is going into is affected by that sentiment and that sense of loss still. 

“So I think that's one of the challenges, but I think he's a good soul and he'll come through.”

 

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