Prince Andrew’s enforced withdrawal from public life tells us much about what the British monarchy means in 2019. But perhaps the most significant lesson from his effective resignation is that Buckingham Palace has not forgotten how to do politics.
As Stephen Bush and I wrote during the Tory leadership election fallout from Boris Johnson’s thwarted prorogation of Parliament in September – a move that politicised the Palace to an extent unseen since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – the longevity and durability of the British monarchy compared to its European counterparts owes much to the Queen’s conscious decision to appear above the fray of everyday politics.
Both the Duke of York’s association with Jeffrey Epstein and his catastrophically inept attempts at managing the scandal posed an even greater risk to the Windsors’ studied detachment from the unpredictable currents of public opinion. His decision to give up his public duties, unprecedented in modern times, should be seen in this context.
Tellingly, Andrew’s statement cites the Queen – unsurprisingly – as the person who ultimately sanctioned the decision. In stressing his regret for his friendship with Epstein, his sympathy for his victims and his willingness to cooperate with any legal inquiries, it also very deliberately does three things he so spectacularly failed to do over the course of his disastrous Newsnight interview on Saturday night.
Leaving public life on these terms will not insulate the Duke from further criticism. But the hope is that it will protect his mother, who had hitherto supported him publicly – and, in time, Prince Charles. Anything less would have jeopardised the Queen’s enduringly successful political mission: appearing apolitical, or at least apart from political debate. Last night’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, in which both contenders for the premiership were asked whether the monarchy in general and Andrew in particular were “fit for purpose”, was evidence enough of a real and present threat.
But while the swiftness of Andrew’s volte-face will likely age well as far as the standing of the royals is concerned, the same cannot be said for the prime minister’s tone deaf response last night: “The institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach.” Tonight’s news reveals that his judgement was some way off.