In late February 2023, King Charles found himself embroiled in controversy for hosting Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission of the European Union, at Windsor Castle, mere hours after a new Brexit deal concerning Northern Ireland was unveiled by von der Leyen and the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The meeting attracted cross-party condemnation, as well as extensive media attention, due to the invitation being perceived as evidence of the King lending support to the ‘Windsor framework’, which is a political matter, and an exceptionally divisive one at that. Given the constitutional importance placed upon the sovereign’s political neutrality during the reign of the late Queen Elizabeth II, this incident provides an interesting insight into the approach of King Charles, and the relationship between the sovereign and government within the British constitution, in terms of the responsibility of the maintenance of political neutrality.
In Britain’s constitutional monarchy, there exists a convention that the sovereign maintains strict political neutrality, which is achieved through the principle that the monarch acts on the advice of government ministers when carrying out public functions. This represents a significant evolution of the monarchy: whilst historically, the sovereign held supreme authority to exercise executive power, over time, this power came to be severely limited. The remainder of the sovereign’s inherited discretionary powers exist under the royal prerogative, and are now almost exclusively carried out by government ministers, or else, as with personal prerogatives, are largely circumscribed, so that the sovereign has no ‘effective discretion’ over their exercise. This evolution has resulted in the monarchy establishing itself as above the political battle; neutral and detached rather than partisan and political.
Though politically neutral, the sovereign is nonetheless politically active. Indeed, as the Cabinet Manual states, whilst remaining politically impartial, the monarch is entitled to ‘advise, encourage and warn ministers’ – what is known as the ‘tripartite convention’. The sovereign, therefore, has the right to express personal views about political issues which do not align with ministers’ views, though only confidentially, and in the knowledge that he or she is ultimately bound to accept ministerial advice. In addition, the Cabinet Manual also states that the sovereign ‘undertakes and hosts a number of state visits, helping build relations with other nations’. The monarchy thus also maintains an essential diplomatic function, working in conjunction with the executive.
It is worth noting that the convention concerning the sovereign’s political neutrality is relatively recent. Queen Victoria’s reign saw the Crown attain the prestige and respect that the monarchy enjoys to this day, as the sovereign came to be seen as above politics. The Queen did, however, make her political opinions known. This was also true of the early twentieth century monarchs, such as King George VI, who markedly identified himself with the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain following the 1938 Munich agreement by controversially appearing with him on the Buckingham Palace balcony to celebrate ‘peace for our time’.
Queen Elizabeth II was thus the first sovereign to truly transcend the political realm, as noted by the political scientist Vernon Bogdanor, and this was considered to be one of the many strengths of her reign. Indeed, in a testament to the importance of the convention, at moments in which the Queen’s political neutrality was questioned, Buckingham Palace went to extreme lengths to reaffirm the sovereign’s impartiality. For example, following a publication in The Sunday Times in 1986 which suggested the Queen considered Margaret Thatcher ‘uncaring’, her then-private secretary William Heseltine wrote to The Times to confirm the constitutional parameters surrounding the Queen’s neutrality, assuring that the relationship between sovereign and Prime Minister was one of ‘the closest confidentiality’. Further, in 2016, when The Sun newspaper reported that the Queen ‘backs Brexit’, Buckingham Palace responded by releasing a statement affirming Her Majesty’s political neutrality. That the palace saw fit to respond to these stories highlights the importance attributed by the monarchy itself to the convention of the sovereign’s political impartiality.
The King’s meeting with Ursula von der Leyen has been perceived by some to be indicative of His Majesty’s approval of the Brexit deal negotiated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with Nigel Farage, for instance, questioning whether the King has begun to show his ‘real political beliefs’. If true, this represents a notable departure from the scrupulous example set by the Queen. This is yet more significant when considering His Majesty’s record both during and prior to his succession to the throne. For example, when responding to concerns about his reputation as a ‘meddler’, the then-Prince gave assurances that he would not act as such when King. Furthermore, he was central to a high-profile legal dispute over the Freedom of Information Act and its application to His Majesty’s private correspondence with government ministers, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling in Evans that the government’s veto of the release of the letters was unlawful. In addition, the then-Prince attracted criticism last year for reported comments made against the government’s asylum policy. Most recently, in October 2022, prior to their first weekly audience, King Charles’ remarks of ‘Back again? Dear oh dear’ to then-Prime Minister Liz Truss, were widely taken to be indicative of his political opinion.
Deviating from the convention of political neutrality can be seen to set a dangerous precedent for many reasons, some of which Attorney General Dominic Grieve considered when attempting to veto the publication of the King’s private letters. He stated that the monarchy’s political neutrality preserves the ‘constitutional balance’ and ensures that the sovereign fulfils their ‘symbolic function as representative of the State’. This highlights the importance of the convention, as any public disagreement between the Prime Minister and sovereign could damage their existing and future relationship. Moreover, political neutrality protects the monarchy from criticism by ensuring it cannot be drawn into the politics of the day.
This is evident when considering the reception of the King’s meeting with the President of the European Commission. Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP labelled the meeting as ‘constitutionally unwise’ and the DUP’s chief whip, Sammy Wilson, claimed that it ‘jeopardised the monarchy’. Others disagreed, however, with the late Queen’s former press secretary, Dickie Arbiter, stating that the occasion represented a ‘courtesy’ and arguing that the meeting did not amount to political interference. Nonetheless, perhaps in response to the criticism received, Buckingham Palace sought to distance itself from the incident, claiming that the meeting took place on the government’s advice. Rather confusingly, the foreign secretary James Cleverly has rejected this, stating instead that decisions about the King’s availability belong to the palace.
This incident shines a spotlight on the inherent ambiguity concerning exactly who is responsible for deciding upon the sovereign’s constitutional duties in modern Britain. In this instance, there was a lack of clarity over whether it was the palace or the government that assumed the responsibility of inviting Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor Castle, and indeed whether it was constitutionally appropriate for this event to take place altogether. It is true that the nature of the sovereign’s role in modern Britain is distinct and varied, as the King fulfils a number of both ceremonial and constitutional duties, including those relating to diplomacy, within which he is under a duty to maintain the constitutional convention of political neutrality.
It is not, however, merely the King’s responsibility to define the extent of his constitutional role. All monarchical duties are carried out under the strict advice of the government, who themselves have a responsibility to define the parameters of the King’s political neutrality. One must only consider the COP27 summit at the end of last year, when the then-Prime Minister Liz Truss asked the King, a well-known advocate of environmental issues prior to his succession, not to attend –a decision which Rishi Sunak upheld upon becoming Prime Minister. It was the government, in this instance, that took steps to ensure the maintenance of the King’s political neutrality. Similar steps were not taken in regard to preventing the King’s meeting with Ursula von der Leyen. By permitting this to take place, the government has allowed the King to be associated with the Windsor Framework, the name of which in itself is reminiscent of the Royal Family, conceivably in an attempt to garner support for the agreement. However, as already noted, the incident received intensive backlash and, though some directed this towards the King, most criticised the government for allowing it to take place. Baroness Foster, for instance, berated the meeting as ‘crass by the government’.
It is right for commentators to direct their criticisms towards the government in relation to this incident. After all, the King’s official duties, including this controversial meeting with von der Leyen, are carried out under governmental advice, which the palace is constitutionally bound to adhere to. In light of this, one can only hope that the government has learned a valuable lesson and will place greater weight on preserving the convention of the monarch’s political neutrality in the future.
Jemma Carpenter, Masters Law Student at the University of Sussex.
(Suggested citation: J. Carpenter, ‘Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Windsor: Who defines King Charles’ constitutional role?’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (27th March 2023) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))