The Queen has done something quite extraordinary today: she has, very carefully, made an explicitly political intervention at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London.
She told assembled world leaders:
It is my sincere wish that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations and will decide that one day, the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949.
In other words, the Queen wants Prince Charles to be the next head of the Commonwealth. No ifs, no buts.
In itself, it’s no surprise she supports this idea. It makes sense for Britain’s monarch to lead an organisation that evolved out of what the Queen – on her 21st birthday – called ‘our great imperial family’. Not only will the Prince of Wales one day be the sovereign of 15 Commonwealth realms (plus the United Kingdom); he has also spent decades visiting the farthest-flung parts of the organisation and working to ensure good royal relations with them. (He has only just returned from a visit to the Pacific state of Vanuatu.)
What is remarkable is that the Queen has decided to put her view on the record – in front of Commonwealth leaders and the press, at Buckingham Palace. On the surface, this looks risky. If the 53 heads of government decide, when her long reign comes to an end, not to appoint Prince Charles as her successor – and to instead have some kind of rolling presidency – this will be a repudiation of the Queen’s expressed wish. It would arguably undermine her legacy, as someone who has been so devoted to the Commonwealth and her role as its head. It might even endanger the whole future of the organisation, given the controversy it would stir up.
It’s almost unimaginable. The Queen’s statement therefore raises the possibility of whether, behind closed doors in London this week, Commonwealth leaders have already come to an agreement on this issue. Arguably, Her Majesty would only make such a statement if she was certain it would be unanimously supported.
But her speech came at the official opening of the Commonwealth meeting, not the close. And No 10 was saying only on Monday that:
Succession is a matter for the Commonwealth as a whole to determine. If any discussion did take place it would happen at the leaders’ retreat at Windsor on Friday. Decisions in the Commonwealth are made by consensus.
Either Downing Street has got it wrong – certainly a possibility, judging by recent events – or the Queen is simply worried enough that Prince Charles won’t be ‘acclaimed’ head of the Commonwealth (as she was on her father’s death) to make this surprising intervention.
That would be quite remarkable. Either way, she obviously feels her service to the Commonwealth gives her license to speak freely in this way. And few would disagree with that.