Peter Oborne reveals the calculations that led the Prime Minister to ditch the royal wedding in favour of the Pope’s funeral
Fifty years ago, almost to the day, Winston Churchill retired as prime minister at the grand old age of 80. On the eve of his retirement the great man gave a private dinner for the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and a very small number of family and friends. It was agreed in advance between the Palace and 10 Downing Street that there should be no speeches. However, at the end of the dinner the Queen did propose a simple toast to ‘my prime minister’.
Churchill then rose to reply. Those present later recalled the look of slight panic that showed itself on the face of Clementine Churchill at this moment. Winston Churchill was a great preparer of his speeches: even seemingly off-the-cuff remarks were often crafted in advance. On this occasion, Clemmie knew, he had prepared nothing, and she was alarmed at what he might say.
But the old man got it exactly right. Raising his glass for the loyal toast, the prime minister stated that it was the same as that which he had drunk as a young subaltern in Bangalore in 1898, some 57 years before. Only then, he said, he had drunk it to Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother. Churchill spoke poetically of ‘the sacred causes, and wise and kindly way of life, of which Your Majesty is the young and gleaming champion’.
This relationship between the young Queen and Winston Churchill, like the friendship that developed between Queen Victoria and her first prime minister Lord Melbourne 120 years before, set the tone for relations between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street for decades to come. In the case of the present Queen, there have been certain ingredients, above all a profound and impregnable fastidiousness. She stands wholly above politics and favours no party. In the half-century and more since she inherited the throne she has never deviated, not even by the smallest fraction, from this abiding principle.
In return, successive prime ministers have inherited a duty to advise and protect the monarch, to arrange the succession, and to protect the dignity of the British Crown and constitution. This healthy and mutually sustaining relationship has applied under both Labour and Conservative administrations, though it is sometimes said that the Queen’s warmest personal relationships were with the Labour premiers Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson.
It is only under Tony Blair that this arrangement has broken down. The first striking thing was the sheer rudeness: the cancellation of audiences or the refusal of Cherie Blair to curtsy to the Queen (the Prime Minister’s wife was at it again in Westminster Cathedral on Monday, when she cut Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles dead). It soon became clear that New Labour did not understand, or at any rate would not accept, the British constitution. The Downing Street website announced that the Queen enjoyed weekly audiences with Tony Blair, rather than the other way round. The Prime Minister himself, while on a visit to Kosovo, made a jarring reference to ‘my’ armed forces, oblivious both to the fact that servicemen owe their allegiance to the Crown and to the dangerous consequences that flow when the military gives its allegiance to the ruling party. The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw referred to Tony Blair as ‘head of state’. Three years ago Downing Street outrageously attempted to gain a more prominent role at the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state than had been envisaged in the original arrangements, then lied when The Spectator brought details of this interference to a wider public. Basically, New Labour resents the monarchy because it takes up an area of British public space which it believes it should occupy itself. Curiously enough, Palace sources say that Gordon and Sarah Brown treat the monarchy with much greater propriety than do Tony and Cherie Blair.
The Prime Minister constantly betrays the royal trust. Confidences uttered to the Prime Minister on special privy council terms have been leaked to pro-government newspapers, always in words that place Tony Blair in the best possible light, and his opponents in the worst, in order to secure short-term political advantage. The confidence between the monarch and her first minister has ceased to exist.
Nothing, however, so completely displays Tony Blair’s contempt for his constitutional role as the circumstances surrounding the royal wedding between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles. The events which took place on Monday morning, as news came through that the Pope’s funeral was to be held on Friday and would clash with the wedding, were so extraordinary that they can only be understood as signalling some kind of punctuation mark in British history.
There was a brief four- or five-hour period, while the Prince of Wales and his advisers at Clarence House were working out how best to react to the new trajectory of events, when the royal wedding was still officially scheduled for Friday. It was Downing Street’s conduct during those fleeting hours that is so open to question. Rather than await any decision from the Prince, Downing Street indicated instantly that Tony Blair would go to Rome rather than Windsor. At the 11 a.m. lobby the Prime Minister’s official spokesman used cautious language, but reporters were left in no doubt that Tony Blair had made up his mind. Privately the guidance was firmer still.
Partly this is a question of manners. The formal invitation to the royal wedding had arrived several months before, and been carefully RSVP’d. And yet the Prime Minister and his wife were ready to ditch the invitation without prior notice or proper consultation.
Still more curious was Tony Blair’s immediate determination to go to Rome. No prime minister has ever attended a papal funeral before, and with good reason. Britain is not a Roman Catholic country — though admittedly anyone who has read the British newspapers over the past few days might be forgiven for supposing that it was. The papacy stands for autocratic and hierarchical principles and attachments to ancient dogmas that are alien to the British state.
Not merely that, but Rome is emphatic that the Church of England, where the Prime Minister is at any rate nominally a communicant, is heretical. As far as the Vatican is concerned, the Anglican settlement is illegitimate and has no merit. Pope Leo XIII made this plain in his papal bull, Apostolicae Curae, of September 1896, which declared that Anglican orders ‘have been and are completely null and void’. This means that so far as the papacy is concerned, the Archbishop of Canterbury is no more than an old man in a skirt, though no Roman cardinal or bishop would be rude enough to express such a view. This is what made it such an audacious decision by the British Prime Minister to decide at once to abandon his duties to the British Crown and travel to the Vatican instead.
As always with this Prime Minister it is illuminating to examine the motives that led him to muscle out of the Prince’s wedding, just as three years ago he sought to muscle into the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state. There was clear electoral advantage in being seen at the great occasion in Rome mingling with world leaders (‘two Bushes and a Clinton’, as one Westminster insider said). Tony Blair’s decisions have typically been made from the point of view of publicity and self-promotion and guided by the mood of the tabloid press. By last weekend it was already clear that much of the media had written off the Prince of Wales’s wedding as a farcical union between two absurd figures. It is highly unlikely that the Prime Minister would have acted with such intemperate speed and complete contempt had the wedding been a massively popular event — like, for instance, the 1981 Diana marriage. But this very fact that the wedding has met with trouble and nee ded support made the Prime Minister’s decision to travel to the Vatican and snub his future monarch quite especially obnoxious.
Tony Blair’s handling of Monday’s events, however, merely compounds a wider failure to do his duty. The Prime Minister is the primary adviser to the monarch, so it fell to him alone to advise the Queen about the royal union, its timing, its acceptability and its constitutional implications. Here he failed miserably. Perhaps it is unfair to blame Tony Blair personally for the wretched advice of Charles Falconer, the laziest and most incompetent Lord Chancellor of modern times. But the Prime Minister is most certainly at fault as far as the date of the wedding is concerned.
The surprising thing about this wedding is that it has been allowed to occur so very close to a general election. This propinquity breaches the central rule that a modern constitutional monarchy should never allow its affairs to interfere with the democratic process. It is very surprising indeed that Tony Blair should have advised the Queen that it was proper for the wedding to take place less than four weeks before a general election.
Once again, it is important to examine the Prime Minister’s motives. The advantages to him politically of the marriage intruding upon the campaign were immense. Election campaigns are the only period when broadcasters are required, by law, to provide equal airtime for the three main political parties (the reason why Liberal Democrats tend to do so well). When Tony Blair advised the Queen about the timing of the wedding several months ago, New Labour was comfortably ahead in the polls. It suited him that as little time as possible should be devoted to examination of the government’s record. Nor can it plausibly be claimed that, by the start of this year, the Prime Minister was unaware of his planned election date. It was already inked into ministerial diaries and, though the Queen may have been kept in the dark, vital New Labour allies like the Sun newspaper had already been informed. Tony Blair was acting from selfish political motives when he advised the Queen on the wedding. He wanted as short an election campaign as possible, and it is inconceivable that he did not calculate that media coverage of Charles’s second wedding would drown out politics for the best part of a week. It would have been very much better if he had formally proposed that the wedding be held later in the year, so that all the details could be carefully sorted out in advance and, above all, that the election could have been got out of the way.
With the general election less than four weeks hence, it is worth reflecting that this abusive relationship with one of the great institutions of state is entirely characteristic of this Prime Minister. New Labour has not simply insulted the monarchy. It has debased Parliament, attacked the judiciary, and debauched the Civil Service. Thanks to Tony Blair, even the Secret Intelligence Service has lost a large part of its public reputation. Above all the ballot box — the most sacred democratic symbol of all — has lost its integrity. This week the Labour party was found guilty of massive electoral fraud in the Midlands, and the words of Judge Richard Mawrey, who attacked ministers for tolerating a corruption that would ‘disgrace a banana republic’, should help set the tone for this campaign.
This election above all concerns the integrity of the great institutions of the British state, which have come under prolonged and insidious attack from New Labour for the last eight years. It would be wrong to say that all of the Labour party, which contains many honourable men and women who show great respect for the enduring qualities of British public life, is complicit. But Tony Blair, the leader of the small faction which seized power in the party back in 1994, has led a most disreputable government. It has become essential for the health of our democracy, and the security of our institutions, that he and his squalid associates be removed from office next month.