Courtiers are the real power behind the throne
Yesterday saw the release of the first three episodes of Harry and Meghan, and with it a climax to the royal briefing war which had given the programme so much publicity. In the Netflix series Prince Harry claims, “There’s leaking but there’s also planting of stories […] It’s a dirty game.” Though he doesn’t name the dirty players, it’s not difficult to imagine who he is referring to.
Underhand tricks? Isn’t this more the preserve of politicians, rather than the Crown? Really, though, Britain’s two metonymic palaces — Buckingham and Westminster — are far closer in their media strategy than we might imagine. Most indicative of this is how many royal PR bigwigs previously worked in Whitehall, and indeed vice versa: the current head of the Civil Service, Simon Case, was previously Private Secretary to Prince William and before that held the same position for David Cameron.
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Case is far from an isolated example. The Prince of Wales’s current Private Secretary, Jean-Christophe Gray, was the official Downing Street spokesman for Cameron. A Sunday Times profile of Gray last year mentioned his ‘reputation as Whitehall’s most assiduous bean-counter’, and it is no surprise why William would want someone like that to troubleshoot and deal with venomous briefings from across the Atlantic.
On the other side of the royal rumble, the Sussexes once employed Samantha Cohen as their Private Secretary after she had served the late Queen as assistant private secretary. In February of this year, Boris Johnson chose her as his ‘gatekeeper’; shortly before his resignation in July, she ascended to the role of acting chief of staff, following the promotion of Steve Barclay to the health brief. Cohen wasn’t a Westminster insider at the time of her Downing Street appointment, but she didn’t need to be. The press management and occasional skulduggery required in Whitehall are skills she could well have honed during almost two decades serving the royal family.
For all their faults, Harry and Meghan are right to say that leaking is an oft-used practice between royal households, even if they aren’t explicitly naming the household. In a now-deleted tweet from 7th December, Times foreign correspondent Catherine Philp stated, ‘It is no secret that certain courtiers briefed against Meghan and Harry and it is no secret who they were representing. Everyone in the press knew.’ In a later tweet, also deleted, she added, ‘I only saw it second hand, but it was pretty blatant, not hard to figure out’.
Just as politicians spread gossip and stir trouble through mouthpieces accredited as ‘sources’ and ‘allies’, the Windsors have long conducted a proxy war in the national press by way of ‘unnamed courtiers’. According to the historian Robert Lacey, ‘In a sense the real rulers of Britain’s palaces are not the royal family but their staff, the courtiers.’ Princess Diana frequently referred to ‘men in grey’ within the royal household, a term immediately calling to mind the ‘men in grey suits’, the obscure bureaucrats who really hold power in Westminster.
Windsor’s men in grey are not entirely confined to the shadows — Times royal correspondent Valentine Low has just written a whole book about them — but their influence is too often undersold when we consider the psychodrama currently threatening the family’s stability. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex may have defected to join the ranks of California’s incurious rich, but they can still recognise, and occasionally use, the strategy that sustains power players in both royal and British political circles. To stay on top in ‘The Firm’, you have to be willing not just to vanquish your rivals but also to cast aside one-time allies when your position is weakened — as with the palace’s ruthless treatment recently of Lady Susan Hussey.
The press isn’t completely united against the first couple of Montecito. The Mirror’s Polly Hudson reminds us that ‘many behind the scenes in royal circles have been secretly briefing against them – at least Harry and Meghan are saying what they think in public, right to everyone’s faces’. Regardless of all the times that the Duchess has taken a liberal approach to the truth, the suggestion that dark arts are being used by royal aides is far from a conspiracy.