With confirmation that Harry will return to the UK for his grandfather Prince Philip’s funeral, Buckingham Palace is staring down a PR disaster.
Poor Xan Windsor, Lord Culloden.
While the world might never have really heard of the 14-year-old boy, his name is suddenly very relevant. Under current British covid restrictions, only 30 people can attend a funeral and Xan, at 31st-in-line to the throne – he is the grandson of the Queen’s cousin Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester – will therefore just miss making the cut for Prince Philip’s funeral.
While Philip’s (and indeed the Queen and Prince Charles’) funeral arrangements have long been intricately plotted and planned, even being revised in the last 12 months in light of the pandemic, there is one eventuality that no one could have foreseen: That his passing would trigger a tortured family reunion involving his grandson Prince Harry, all of which will play out on live TV.
Today, the 36-year-old self-exiled royal is preparing to return to the UK, the first time he will have set foot on British soil since March last year when he and wife Meghan Duchess of Sussex completed their final round of official engagements before they sashayed off into the sunset for a glitzy new life in California. Meghan, who is due to give birth to their second child in the Northern summer, will not attend as she was not given “medical clearance” to travel.
The 13 months since the Sussexes’ swan song has been a period of acrimony and tumult, a period which has seen the fraught relationship between the couple and his family come under considerable strain and during which the house of Windsor has teetered precariously on entering Kardashian-esque soap opera territory.
In the year and change since Harry and Meghan’s exit, the remaining HRHs in London have gamely ploughed on throughout the pandemic, again and again seeing their dull but well-intentioned good works being drowned out by the never-ending din of the Sussex saga.
In that time, there have been public tears, an embarrassing pranking by Russian comedians, money quibbles, a dignity-free TV appearance on top of a bus, an international private jet flit, a series of headline-grabbing business deals, an eyebrow-raising intercession into the US presidential election, a heartbreaking miscarriage, an appearance on America’s Got Talent, the release of a juicy if sycophantic biography, a seemingly ceaseless game of trans-Atlantic PR ping pong, all of course which was capped off by their doozy of a two-hour prime time TV interview which has provoked the greatest public reckoning the monarchy has faced in decades.
And things have hardly improved since Harry and Meghan went on American TV in March to charge the royal house with both callous indifference to the duchess’ mental health struggles and of racism.
When Harry finally spoke to his father and brother in the wake of the Sussexes’ explosive prime time outpouring things did not go swimmingly, a fact we know because the couple’s friend Gayle King afterwards then went on TV to tell viewers “The word I was given was those conversations were not productive.”
(Discretion might be the better part of valour but not the better part of scaling the greasy pole of US TV ratings.)
It is against this backdrop of grievance and recriminations that Harry is now set to be reunited with his extended family. The scene is now set for a family drama of such proportions it would have William Shakespeare reaching for a fresh quill, with two royal factions preparing to come face-to-face for an historically freighted royal face-off which will involve TV cameras and the eyes of the world watching. No pressure.
This royal family now faces the nightmare scenario of a sombre family occasion being subsumed by a tabloid frenzy, all body language experts and lip readers being brought in to scrutinise and parse every HRH’s blink and twitch.
Overnight details about the 99-year-old duke’s funeral were released, revealing that Prince Charles and family members will follow behind the coffin as it is driven in a Land Rover especially designed by the Duke of Edinburgh to St George’s Chapel.
Both Harry and William will likely be part of this procession. It will be a mournful, dignified moment, one marked with the requisite solemnity and reflection. But make no mistake, all eyes will be on the Wales brothers.
While we are not going to see them rolling around the Windsor Castle quadrangle, fists flying and Savile Row suits getting deplorably muddied, the dynamic between the men will be what the world will be unable to tear their eyes away from, fascinated and breath baited.
All of this will be happening mind on live TV, with confirmation overnight the funeral will be televised.
And that is very bad news for The Firm. (Fun fact: Philip used to say when they were in residence at Buckingham Palace that they “lived above the shop.”)
The days since the duke’s death have seen a public outpouring and have in some ways seemed to further coalesce support behind the Queen, and the royal family, in the UK. Philip’s funeral is an opportunity, after the turmoil of the last few years, for them to put on a united, cohesive front.
Harry’s return after more than a year away will unintentionally jeopardise that, his very presence likely to set off something of a media meltdown focused on his return to the family – and institution – he recently spent two hours on TV taking devastating aim at.
There is a particularly tragic irony that the passing of a man who had devoted his life to his wife, country and crown threatened to be eclipsed by tabloid paroxysms and family psychodrama.
Of course, I am not for a second suggesting that Harry should not make the trip from LA back to his homeland for this sad moment or that he would want this sort of frenzied reaction to his return.
Then there is the question of what the personal consequences of his return might be.
On one hand, perhaps the grief and loss of this moment might serve as some sort of healing balm and might help the self-exiled duke find a way back into the fold. Maybe the events of this week will serve as a crucial reminder of the power of family and forgiveness will be the order of the day.
On the other hand, from what we have learned via Finding Freedom, the Oprah interview and a myriad of UK newspaper reports is that the bitterness and hurt between Harry and William has been allowed to fester and metastasise for years. The question now is, is their relationship even salvageable?
On a wholly practical level, Harry will have to isolate on his return for five days, at which point he will need to receive a negative COVID test to attend Saturday’s funeral. Given the Sussexes’ Frogmore Cottage is now home to his cousin Princess Eugenie and her family, just where is he even going to stay? The Mountbatten-Windsors might have more guest bedrooms between them than a national hotel chain but who will put their hand up to take the royal émigré in?
For the palace, all of this scenario is head scratching, collar-tugging, sweat-inducing stuff.
There is a bigger issue at play here too (isn’t there always?) which is that this sad moment in palace history could be representative of a wider shift, which is the royal family’s brand slipping from one aligned with dedication, hard work and the occasional bout of infidelity to one that stands for unflagging melodrama and family ugliness.
As we face the week ahead, for the house of Windsor, now is the UK spring of their discontent.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.