The UK now has an experienced king and a novice PM | Rishi SunakNovember 21, 2022
There is now an interesting situation at the heart of the constitution of the United Kingdom. This is because of the combination of a new but politically experienced king and a new and inexperienced – and weak – prime minister.
Charles III may be new to the throne but he has spent most of his life not only preparing for the role but also engaging fully in public and political affairs. Part of this engagement has been largely hidden, though the extent of his lobbying of ministers was revealed in the freedom of information case about his so-called “black spider memos” to ministers.
But much of this engagement has been in plain sight. On many issues, often with an international aspect, the king has long promoted causes and campaigns for policy changes.
It was therefore not surprising that Charles gave a thoughtful and well-crafted speech when the COP26 United Nations climate change conference met in Glasgow. It was an address far more concrete than a mere ceremonial welcome with bland declarations.
“The scale and scope of the threat we face,” said the then prince of Wales, “call for a global, systems-level solution” and he spelt out how this could be achieved if the political leaders gathered there were to take different decisions to those which they would otherwise take.
And it was not only a speech: he has put in place a “sustainable markets initiative” with a detailed “Terra Carta” programme. On international environmental issues, therefore, the new king is a player and not a spectator. This matters to him.
The natural thing would have been for Charles to have continued with this activism at the COP27 summit in Cairo. But the British government said no. The then-new and now-former Prime Minister Elizabeth Truss vetoed the king’s attendance.
By the time she was replaced, the current prime minister and the king agreed, so they said, that it was too late logistically for the latter to attend.
But that was not the end of the matter, and this is where we can see the combination of an experienced king and a novice prime minister. Charles was able to have his cake and eat it, as the English proverb goes.
The king organised his own mini-summit, or “reception” as it was politely called, at Buckingham Palace. John Kerry, the United States presidential climate envoy and others were in attendance. Sunak swiftly reversed his original decision not to attend COP27 and he even came to the reception to make a speech, paying tribute to Charles’s work.
A less experienced or less committed monarch would have just accepted the decision of the government that they were not to go to the international conference and done nothing else. In the United Kingdom, the Crown acts on the “advice” of ministers.
Here, however, Charles accepted the advice but still made his important point publicly and pressed the prime minister into doing something different to what he wanted to do.
A more experienced and more strongly placed prime minister, in turn, would not have been so easily bounced. But the current prime minister – like all British prime ministers since the Brexit referendum of 2016 – is politically weak and is constantly seeking to keep support together.
Over time, perhaps, the position of the prime minister will strengthen again, including in relation to the monarch. And perhaps the king will become less interested in various causes and adopt a more ceremonial role in public. But until then, we seem to have, in the centre of the executive of the United Kingdom, a power relationship that is unfavourable to the prime minister.
If this is correct then, on various issues of interest to the new king, the government may again find itself wrong-footed and out-manoeuvred. This will not be on matters of party political debate, but they will be policy issues – on climate and the environment and other issues.
After the 70-year reign of a queen who made little public show of her political views, some may have thought that the days of a monarch with pronounced views on matters of policy were over. But the scope for such a monarch was always there and it has now been revived.
Charles has spent more than 60 years getting ready to exert such influence. Had he come to the crown with a well-established prime minister in place, his impact would have been more limited. But the political state of the United Kingdom could not have been more advantageous for the new king. The question is now how long this situation will last.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.