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Why Keir Starmer and the King are the new power pairing

As guests took their places at the lavish Buckingham Palace state banquet held in honour of the Japanese emperor a little over a week ago, the more eagle-eyed attendees were to be found salivating over the seating plan as much as the menu boasting poached Scottish langoustine and Cornish turbot.

For while Rishi Sunak found himself making polite conversation while seated with an eminent computer scientist from his native Southampton, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer spent his evening barely seven days before the general election sat beside the most senior aide to the King.

On the one hand, just which white-tie clad dignitary gets to make small talk with another dignitary over quail eggs and claret is routine royal scuttlebutt. On the other, it was hard not to conclude that someone somewhere within the upper echelons of the Palace had spotted a high-profile opportunity for those closest to the monarch to be seen comparing notes with the coming man of British politics.

Indeed, the public conflab between Sir Keir and Clive Alderton, the principal private secretary to King Charles is widely seen as part of a growing body of evidence that the monarch, already on the third prime minister of his reign, and the latest occupant of Number 10 may enjoy an unusually close relationship.

Certainly, the pair will be seeing somewhat more of each other, both in the immediate aftermath of Labour’s landslide as Sir Keir makes the traditional pilgrimage to the Palace pursued by a squadron of broadcasters’ helicopters, and then in the weekly audiences to follow for the duration of his premiership.

FILE - King Charles III during an audience with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the 1844 Room, at Buckingham Palace, London, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (Jonathan Brady/Pool Photo via AP, File)
King Charles during an audience with Sir Keir Starmer in the 1844 Room at Buckingham Palace (Photo: Jonathan Brady/AP)

Any clue as to the content and portent of those consultations will be followed avidly.

It is a cornerstone of Britain’s famously amorphous constitution that the Sovereign stays far above the political fray by refraining from expressing any directly partisan views. It was a balancing act at which the late and doggedly inscrutable Queen Elizabeth, with barely a handful of exceptions, excelled.

Perhaps more by design than accident, the same cannot be said for her successor. While Charles as monarch has been less outspoken than Charles as heir, he has nonetheless maintained his reputation for speaking plainly on the core issues that matter to him, chiefly the environment and action to mitigate climate change.

Whereas Elizabeth II’s views on the cost of living crisis or illegal migration went unknown, her son has repeatedly voiced alarm at the impact of poverty (one of his charities last year donated £1m for a food bank to buy 800 freezers) and, shortly before he ascended the throne in 2022, apparently described the Government’s Rwanda scheme as “appalling”. Although the comments were made in private, royal aides did not deny them – prompting a behind-the-scenes rebuke from Downing Street that in their view the line of royal apoliticism had been crossed.

Indeed, when it comes to the exercise of soft power the Palace has in recent months found itself at the centre of some eye-catching choreography.

Hours after the announcement of the Windsor Framework post-Brexit trade deal in February last year, Charles held a meeting with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. The move was sharply criticised by some of its Eurosceptic opponents as being at risk of implying royal approval for the Windsor deal. The Palace insisted it was nothing of the sort, pointing out that the monarch and Mrs von der Leyen had not even discussed Brexit.

Nonetheless, many spot an elision between the ideas and policies of Sir Keir and the outlook – both spoken and unspoken – of a king reluctant to entirely swap the social and environmental activism of his apprenticeship as Prince of Wales for the life of ermine-clad neutrality traditionally reserved for the Sovereign.

Ed Owens, a leading royal historian, said: “There is little doubt that Charles has proved to be more confrontational in terms of his constitutional positions. He has taken public positions on key issues in a way that Elizabeth II would never have dreamt of doing.

“Largely this has been in areas where there is a broader consensus, such as the environment, because that has tended to be safe. But also there are these synergies between the King and Labour, often at the bleakest edge of things such as poverty, homelessness and the cost of living crisis.

“Starmer has made clear Labour wants a green re-industrialisation policy and that dovetails with that the King has been saying since as early as the late 1960s. There does appear to be a meeting of minds of some of these things.”

What remains to be seen is the extent of that meeting of minds, and indeed whether Sir Keir’s government emboldens any veins of social liberalism lurking not only within the Palace but also elsewhere within the House of Windsor.

With his interest in homelessness and the provision of affordable housing, Prince William may have even more cause to warm to a progressive political agenda than his father.

Does this mean, however, that behind-the-scenes the monarchy is quietly aligning itself with the same political hue as the vivid shades of red used by the artist Jonathan Yeo in his recently unveiled portrait of King Charles looming out of a haze of distinctly socialist vermillion?

File photo dated 02/05/23 of King Charles III speaking with Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (second right) as Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle (left) looks on during his visit to Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster to attend a reception ahead of the coronation. It is the King's duty as head of state to appoint a prime minister. Charles is set to invite the leader of the party with an overall majority of Commons seats to form a government at a Palace audience on Friday. Issue date: Thursday July 4, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Election King. Photo credit should read: Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Wire
King Charles with Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to Westminster Hall ahead of the coronation (Photo: Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA)

For all Charles’s social awareness, it is unlikely that the Sovereign with a personal fortune estimated at £610m is in a hurry to embrace wholesale wealth redistribution. Instead, any affinity with Sir Keir is likely to be born firstly from his status as the sort of bookish and considered public servant that the King himself aspires to be, and secondly the monarchy’s longstanding preference for being the figurehead of a nation on an even keel.

Dr Owens said: “British monarchs tend to like more centrist politicians, irrespective of whether they are Labour or Conservatives. They want to see political, social and economic stability and the reason for that is because without those things, the risk of people becoming upset with the system itself increases. And that leads to some very hard questions about the nature of the constitution and the injustices within the social and economic hierarchy, including the monarchy itself.

“It is one hundred per cent self-interest on the part of the royals. That may sound a cynical but history has shown those instincts to be correct. When the country is being relatively well run those deeper and harder questions are not being asked about society in general.”

It is one of the ironies of the current overlaps between royal and Labour agendas that in his own more radical past as a young human rights lawyer, Sir Keir routinely proposed the abolition of the monarchy, a position from which he has since resiled, describing it as a youthful indiscretion. Indeed, when Sir Keir eventually came to be knighted in 2014 for his services as Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, it was Prince Charles who tapped the kneeling barrister on each shoulder with the royal sword.

Some suggest that such a record of republicanism, even if firmly in the past, is one of several reasons why the “King and Keir” may not turn out to be the pragmatic double act between government and monarchy that others imagine.

One seasoned royal observer told i: “I think there are several factors at play which go against this. Keir Starmer may not be the sort of character that Charles warms to. Labour have rowed back on the level of green investment after making a song and dance about it. And Charles is capable of bearing a grudge, especially against someone who once outed himself as a republican. There are certainly overlapping circles [between the King and Sir Keir] but I don’t think there is an obvious affinity between them.”

Further down the road of a Labour government, however, some spy the potential for a more fundamental reckoning once Sir Keir decides on just how to proceed on a manifesto commitment to phase out hereditary peers in the House of Lords and launch a consultation on replacing it with a “more representative” body.

Some, among them Dr Owens, spy a rare opportunity within such moves to reshape not only the Westminster landscape but also the constitutional settlement. A sufficiently bold prime minister, it is argued, could use the creation of a new second chamber to also repurpose the royal family with a Monarchy Act to codify its opaque powers and re-shape the Privy Council, acting with the Sovereign as its titular head, to perform a new enhanced role as a watchdog for standards in public life.

In the meantime, however, it remains the case that, whatever the bonhomie between a monarch and a prime minister, it is also part of the Sovereign’s job description to no get too close to any government of the day.

Dr Owens said: “There are many different trajectories for the monarchy over the next 20 or 30 years but ultimately there are risks in identifying themselves with causes or issues. The consensus around the cost of mitigating climate change could well fracture and Charles could find himself exposed. And that’s why ultimately the Palace will never allow itself to get too close to one prime minister or another. Even if there are crossovers, the image of the balanced and non-partisan monarch is crucial to its survival.”

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