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The Prince of Wales and His Discontents

In George Bernard Shaw’s prophetic comedy “The Apple Cart,” a fictional King Magnus fights an attempt by Prime Minister Proteus to deprive him of the right to influence public opinion through the press. He wants a cipher for a sovereign. The King threatens to abdicate and stand for election himself — in the knowledge that the British monarchy is more popular than any dreary or opportunist politician.

Back in the real world, the royals are supposed to “never complain, never explain.” The Queen is famous for her discretion and dutifully dull pronouncements. Yet her heir, Prince Charles has been taking a leaf out of King Magnus’s book. He has been telling “friends” that the government’s controversial policy of deporting to Rwanda asylum seekers and migrants who have been smuggled illegally into Britain is “appalling,” according to a piece in The Times of London.

The number of migrants who have crossed the Channel from France in tiny, unseaworthy vessels since 2108 has risen above 50,000, with more than 10,000 so far this year, according to government figures. The scheme to fly them to Rwanda is intended to act as a deterrent to others — and give reassurance to voters that the Tories’ claim to protect Britain’s borders can be translated into practice. 

The senior leadership of the Church of England has already denounced the plan as an “immoral policy that shames Britain,” but it’s traditional for the bishops to elide their liberal political views with the Bible against the Tories. Not so, the monarchy, which usually avoids a scrap with No 10.

Charles’s office at Clarence House has not denied his remarks, although a spokesperson insists that “he remains politically neutral.” This is constitutionally the case, but not in actual fact.

The Prince of Wales is known to chafe against his restraints. That’s only human for a 73-year old man who has been kept waiting for the top job for decades. But then his mother’s superhuman silence on the burning issues of the day is also what endears her to her people and prevents schisms deepening around the royals for all their foibles and pratfalls.

It may not be long before Charles III takes the place of the 96-year old Elizabeth II. So the unpalatable fate that beckons is that he must learn to be dull, too. 

The Prince may think that Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the wily latter-day Proteus in this drama — is on the backfoot after the Partygate scandals and the subsequent resignation of his second ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, this week. Ironically, Geidt was ousted by Charles and his scapegrace brother Prince Andrew from his previous job as the Queen’s chief adviser when he tried to restrict their freedoms too tenaciously. 

Still, Geidt’s advice holds good. The heir to the throne would be wise not antagonize his prime minister needlessly — Johnson has seen off most of his critics during his turbulent career and notoriously holds a grudge. 

And Johnson has friends. The tabloid press are cheerleaders for the Rwanda policy. They regard Charles’s enthusiasm for fads like homoeopathy and organic food as eccentric. In a cost-of-living crisis, more than one commentator has observed that organic food is good to eat, provided that you have a princely income.

It was thought that Charles had learned his lesson 10 years ago after it was revealed that he was in the habit of sending “black spider” letters — named after his idiosyncratic spiraling script — offering advice to ministers on matters from environmentalism to planning rules. A freedom of information request by The Guardian forced their publication. The paper sneered that “the letters show behind the curtain, most of the time, Prince Charles behaves more as a bit of a bore on behalf of his good causes than as any sort of wannabe feudal tyrant.” But the letters might be seen as harbingers of problematic royal behavior.

Take the timing of the Prince’s latest apparent intervention: The European Court of Human Rights stopped the government’s first official flight to Rwanda on the tarmac last week in order to deliberate the legality of the policy. Tory MPs and their press friends are furious. By no coincidence, Charles heads off next week to Rwanda, which hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government. The United Nations High Commissioner has praised Rwanda’s record on taking refugees from other war torn African countries. Paul Kagame, its president, who brought peace to his country after the genocidal attacks on the Tutsis in the 1990s, has long been the poster boy for British aid. Critics, however, say his recent human rights record has been “appalling,” too.

The government’s policy does divide political opinion along sharp lines. A majority of Conservative voters and Brexit supporters are in favor of the £120 million ($146 million) scheme, while Labour voters and Remainers generally oppose it. The latest opinion poll conducted for the Tony Blair Institute shows that more than half rightly suspect that the scheme won’t work. Israel and Denmark have tried to offshore asylum seekers without success, though the European Union pays Libya to detain migrants and asylum seekers in miserable detention camps.

Refugee and immigration policy remains a hot-button issue for voters and the latter was a  major factor behind the Brexit vote. So Charles should keep out. 

Britain has only just emerged from the divisions created by the toxic EU referendum campaign. The nation a fortnight ago celebrated 70 years of the Queen’s reign in a display of unity that impressed many foreign observers plagued by partisan politics of their own.

Geidt’s advice is going unheeded by both his former masters. Last week, Prince Andrew, now disgraced by his former association with the convicted sex traffickers Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, tried to barge his way back into the limelight. It was only the threat of a walk-out by Prince William, Charles’s  eldest son, that got his uncle pulled from a royal line-up.

Like it or not, the Prince of Wales must act as his brother’s keeper. At the conclusion of  the Apple Cart, the prime minister backs down — but the ultimate contest between King and the political class is left unresolved. The Prince of Wales, seeking a succession which will reassure as well as invigorate, will have to perfect the hardest act of all for a natural intervener: minding the “Firm’s” business, not everyone else’s.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

The Queen Has Had Far More Triumphs Than Failures: Martin Ivens

A Multiplicity of Britains Under One Queen: Adrian Wooldridge

Confessions of an Accidental Monarchist: Howard Chua-Eoan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

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