To some it looked suspiciously like a crude piece of news management of the kind we once associated with Tony Blair’s New Labour.
As Unionists and Tory MPs railed about being kept in the dark over Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal with Brussels, enter King Charles.
The monarch’s private meeting with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor was clearly more than diplomatic box-ticking. He had after all been on standby for a similar meeting last Friday — until negotiations ground to a halt before picking up over the weekend. Surely there was something symbolic in the location too. The Fairmont Hotel, where the two leaders met, was just a few minutes’ drive from Windsor Castle where the monarch’s standard fluttered imperiously over proceedings.
Last night, as Westminster and Ulster politicians pored over the details of the Windsor Framework, an agreement hailed by both Downing Street and the EU, a critical question remained: was Charles’s presence used to bounce potential opponents — Ulster’s DUP and hardline Brexiteers — into supporting it?
And while no one can doubt Charles’s willingness to help secure the long-term stability of a part of the kingdom he has developed a special affection for, his involvement also invites a worrying question. If he is asked to do the Government’s bidding on one unpopular mission, might he not be asked to do it again?
To this, you might well observe that under the terms of our constitutional monarchy, that is precisely what we expect of our Sovereign, who is obliged to act as the government of the day sees fit.
All the same, there was a sense of unease in royal circles that the Windsor Framework could lead to a growing politicisation of the monarchy.
Why, they were asking, did Charles have to meet Frau von der Leyen now, when it may have been more appropriate to have met her after his set-piece trips to Germany and France, his first two official state visits as King?
Certainly the King’s involvement was being viewed in some quarters as a deeply cynical exercise. The one thing that unites the Eurosceptics of the European Research Group of Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party is patriotism and their support for the Crown. Cloaking Charles in the deal was tantamount to challenging its critics to risk being seen as anti-monarchy.
‘Would they dare oppose an agreement that appeared to have royal support?’ asked one political figure. ‘They could find that position morally difficult and counter-productive with their own base which is instinctively ‘pro’ the Royal Family.’
Conversely, the calculation could be put that patriotic Unionists — as well as Brexiteers — might choose to support a deal that appeared to be endorsed by the King. Of course, for King Charles, there are pitfalls in this strategy.
As Prince of Wales, he was often accused of political partisanship and meddling. Reassuringly for him, however, the charges over the years came from both the Labour and Tory ranks. During the early 1990s there were anxieties from the John Major government about the stance the prince took on social policies including inner-city decay, homelessness and poverty.
A decade later during the Blair era, the emergence of his so-called ‘black spider’ memos and letters led to complaints from ministers of royal interference on a whole host of issues, from human rights legislation to the safety of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was against this background that he took the step of publicly declaring he would no longer campaign as he had been doing once monarch. ‘I’m not that stupid,’ he memorably said at the time.