Inside high-stakes negotiations at Sandringham: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be offered a compromise ‘Commonwealth role’ as courtiers desperately search for a face-saving solution to Megxit – and one aide warns ‘I’ve never seen the monarchy in such a bad state’
- Well-placed source said: ‘I have never seen the monarchy in such a bad state.’
- Courtiers searching for face-saving measure that will keep the family together
- Palace sources say the Queen has demanded a solution be found ‘at pace’
Sandringham House, near the coast in rural Norfolk, is normally a private sanctuary for the Queen and Prince Philip, a place for family gatherings where they can escape the endless formalities of London and Windsor.
Since Wednesday, however, this Royal retreat has found itself at the heart of the crisis enveloping the Duke and Duchess of Sussex following their shock decision to step back from their official duties and spend more time in North America.
Palace sources say the Queen has demanded a solution be found ‘at pace’ – a sign of real concern in an institution that prefers to operate at glacial speed. But then, as a well-placed source put it: ‘I have never seen the monarchy in such a bad state.’
Sandringham House has found itself at the heart of the crisis enveloping the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Pictured: The Queen on the Sandringham Estate today
Behind closed doors, courtiers are desperately searching for a face-saving measure that will keep the family together and the dignity of the monarchy intact. And not only that, for Her Majesty is said to be increasingly concerned for Prince Harry’s mental wellbeing.
After days of meetings, The Mail on Sunday understands that senior courtiers are preparing to offer the Sussexes a compromise deal potentially involving a Commonwealth role. This would allow them to both maintain their HRH status and live in Canada.
Anxious to avoid exacerbating an already tense situation, the Royal Family is keen to tread carefully. A source said: ‘There is no suggestion that they will be punished or stripped of their Royal titles or HRH status. Everyone wants to find a solution to this as quickly as possible.’
Palace sources say the Queen has demanded a solution be found ‘at pace’. Pictured: Harry and Meghan earlier this week
All the same, the Palace let it be known that the 93-year-old Queen was ‘hurt’ and ‘disappointed’ by Prince Harry and Meghan’s decision to make their announcement without consulting senior Royals.
Prince Harry had been due to fly back to Canada with wife Meghan on Thursday to be united with their eight-month-old son Archie, but decided to stay on in Britain while a deal is thrashed out.
The Queen has a warm relationship with her grandson so it might seem a surprise that the ‘Megxit’ crisis, as it has been termed, should have been allowed to develop in this way.
In truth, however, tensions have been simmering for months.
It was back in May that Meghan and Harry first made it clear they would like to break away from what they see as the stifling constraints of life inside ‘The Firm’.
A source said that Meghan and Harry found the slow pace of Palace life ‘painful’ and that – in another echo of Brexit – Meghan wanted to ‘take back control’ of her work and charitable endeavours.
Prince Harry had been due to fly back to Canada with wife Meghan on Thursday to be united with their eight-month-old son Archie, but decided to stay on in Britain while a deal is thrashed out
To the couple’s dismay, senior Royals were reluctant to discuss their plans with them – so the pair decided to take ‘time out’ with a six-week sabbatical to Canada in November and December.
This decision, too, came as a surprise: the Queen only found out about the break in November when she telephoned Harry to ask if he would be spending Christmas with the family at Sandringham. The answer was no.
Harry asked for a meeting with the Queen at Sandringham when he returned to Britain after Christmas, but it seems aides blocked this until he had ironed out the details of his future plans with his father, Prince Charles. He in turn asked his son to think about it some more and submit a more thorough proposal.
Harry tried again a few days later, and again he was told more time was required to consider the implications, particularly over how the funding would work.
It was made clear he should not make his proposals public until further discussions had taken place – so there was almost no warning at all when the storm broke over Sandringham. The Queen was still hosting the last of the informal gatherings of the festive season, with the decorations still on display (they traditionally remain up until February 6, to mark the anniversary of the death of the Queen’s father, George VI).
Just a few days before, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had joined her for the Sunday morning service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the estate. Kate’s parents Carole and Michael Middleton were there too, having recently returned from a winter break in St Barts in the Caribbean.
The sermon was given by Rt Rev Vivienne Faull, the Bishop of Bristol, who is believed to have later joined the family for Sunday lunch back in Sandringham’s ornate, green-painted dining room.
But late on Wednesday afternoon the atmosphere of celebration was shattered. A private secretary at Sandringham broke the news to the Queen just ten minutes before the Sussexes’ statement was made public. Her Majesty is thought to have been told of the announcement in a wood-panelled sitting room known as the salon – a room open to visitors who tour Sandringham when it opens to the public every summer.
Despite the traditional setting, the Queen is understood to have read the announcement on an iPad before watching coverage on TV as broadcasters revealed the shock announcement to the country.
Her public response, that there was much more to discuss, was delivered swiftly, as were comments from those inside the palace that senior Royals had been left ‘hurt’ and ‘deeply disappointed’.
It hardly helped that the following day, Thursday, was the Duchess of Cambridge’s 38th birthday.
Who will be at the crisis summit?
The Queen and her private secretary Sir Edward Young
The Queen is head of state and head of the royal family, and will ultimately have the final say in the matter.
As the nation’s longest-reigning monarch, her experience and knowledge on the workings of the institution of the monarchy are unrivalled.
Through the decades, the Queen has weathered the Windsors’ many storms and is a symbol of stability both for the nation and within the royal family.
Although left hurt by Harry and Meghan’s actions, the Queen is not given to rash decisions, and will be approaching the problem in a calm and pragmatic way.
The Prince of Wales and his principal private secretary Clive Alderton
Heir to the throne, Charles is the future king and currently bankrolls Harry and Meghan’s public duties through his £21 million-a-year Duchy of Cornwall income.
The prince is a caring, sensitive soul, and is said to be furious at how Harry and Meghan have handled the situation.
He is committed to his royal duty, but will also want his impetuous youngest son, who endured the loss of his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, when he was only 12, and Meghan to be happy.
The Duke of Cambridge and his private secretary Simon Case
When Harry turned 21, he described William as the one person on the planet to whom he could talk to about everything.
But talk of a falling out between the brothers, with William said to have urged his brother to not rush into marrying Meghan, has changed their once-close relationship.
William, who was said to be “incandescent with rage” at the Sussexes’ actions, is a future king, and his position within the royal family is vastly different from sixth-in-line Harry, who has moved steadily down the line of succession and has to carve out his own role.
Mr Case was has been a leading civil servant previously tasked with trying to solve the border issue in Northern Ireland and Ireland during Brexit discussions.
The Duke of Sussex and the couple’s relatively new private secretary Fiona Mcilwham
Harry has always been a favourite with royal fans, who have never forgotten the heart-rending image of the 12-year-old prince walking behind his mother’s coffin.
In his younger days, he was a royal liability – dabbling with cannabis, dressing up as a Nazi and brawling with a paparazzi photographer – before he pulled off a charm offensive as he carried out overseas tours on behalf of the Queen.
Not only were courtiers alarmed by the abrupt way in which Harry and Meghan dropped their bombshell, but sources say there is also some bitterness that they were misled for weeks beforehand.
When the Palace first became aware that Harry and Meghan were launching a new website, Sussex Royal – set up by the team behind Meghan’s now defunct lifestyle blog The Tig – they had been reassured that its purpose was to support their charitable foundation.
So when it emerged that it was in fact to be the launch pad for their new independent career, many in the Palace felt that the couple had been disingenuous, or as one source rather more cautiously put it, their behaviour had been ‘suboptimal’. The timing, meanwhile, was terrible. Announcing such news ahead of Brexit and with the monarchy still reeling from the Prince Andrew debacle, not to mention the Duke of Edinburgh’s recent hospital stay, was seen as inconsiderate.
The response has been complicated by senior Royals being dispersed across the country – Charles is at Birkhall, his Scottish retreat in Aberdeenshire, and William was at his home in Kensington Palace.
Meghan has returned to Canada with Harry thought to be staying at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.
Thankfully for the Queen, she has been able to rely on her 98-year-old husband for support. Prince Philip spends most of his time at Wood Farm, an unassuming cottage on the estate, after retiring from public life in 2017. However, The Mail on Sunday understands he has been staying in the main house since the crisis broke.
Sir Edward Young, the Queen’s private secretary, is overseeing the co-ordination of talks between the different households.
Yesterday aides from the four households of the Queen, the Prince of Wales, William and Harry were locked in talks at Buckingham Palace after earlier meetings involving some of Britain’s most high-ranking civil servants, lawyers and the keeper of the privy purse. The ‘principals’, as courtiers refer to members of the Royal Family, held telephone calls to discuss the options.
The Mail on Sunday understands that Sir Mark Sedwill, head of the Civil Service, has been drawing up plans to offer Harry and Meghan a high profile Commonwealth role, which would allow them to live in Canada and travel abroad on a certain number of official trips each year. Harry is already the president of The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, last year Meghan was made vice-president – and it is a cause close to the Queen’s heart.
The arrangement could mean that the Sussexes could adopt a ‘George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio’ role, said one source, allowing their charitable endeavours to co-exist alongside their commercial interests without clashing.
But the source also pointed out that: ‘a half-in, half-out scenario will be very difficult to pull off’.
On the one hand they will have access to public occasions, such as riding in the carriages at Trooping the Colour and standing on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, but on the other hand they could be seen to be cashing in on their royal status – with a multi-million pound deal for Harry to work with US TV mogul Oprah Winfrey on a series about mental health already announced and an expected book by Meghan sure to be a bestseller.
Palace officials are looking at whether the Sussexes should be required to get Palace authorisation for each commercial deal, although this would undermine the freedom they are seeking.
An insider said: ‘The difficulty will come if they do a deal with a jewellery brand one day and then, on an official engagement, Harry is seen wearing one of the company’s watches. It will be hard to differentiate the two.’
It is hoped that an agreement can be reached by Wednesday.
After days of meetings, The Mail on Sunday understands that senior courtiers are preparing to offer the Sussexes a compromise deal. Pictured: The Queen driving in the Sandringham estate today
Perhaps the clues to an imminent crisis were there all along or, at the very least, since Meghan guest-edited the August issue of Vogue. In Meghan’s Editor’s letter – reached by readers after 80-odd glossy pages of adverts for designer clothing and handbags – she quoted a book called The Four-Chambered Heart by Anais Nin, where a character says: ‘I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.’
So was life in The Firm ‘too shallow’ for Meghan? Perhaps cutting ribbons at community centres was never going to satisfy the ambitious young actress who had her engagement ring ‘upgraded’ by adding extra diamonds to the band.
It is suspected that she had no wish, either, to play a supporting role to her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge.
The Sussexes will look to the example of former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, who, after leaving the White House, launched a lucrative commercial career with multi-million-dollar book deals, a Netflix documentary series and carefully selected public speaking appearances without compromising their ‘brand’. But being a member of the Royal Family is different.
It’s far from clear, for example, exactly what sort of work Harry and Meghan could do without trading on their titles. The Sussex Royal trademark registered with the Intellectual Property Office allows them the right to produce trademarked goods – everything from notebooks to pyjamas.
A source said: ‘The trouble is that there is no precedent for this.’
And when it comes to the monarchy, that is quite a problem.
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