Even for a Nobel Prize-winning leader of the free world, this had been one of the great nights of his life.
Back in his suite at Buckingham Palace, Barack Obama simply wanted to savour the moment.
He had just been honoured with a state banquet given by Queen Elizabeth II.
It wasn’t the Midas-like display of George IV’s gold and silver tableware collection or the quality of the delicious Échézeaux Grand Cru 1990 Romanée-Conti which had made this such an exceptional occasion.
It was the rapport he had formed with a host who could talk with such authority about so many of his predecessors.
Obama had been enjoying himself so much that the Queen had eventually taken the Chancellor of the Exchequer to one side to ask if he might, very discreetly, let the U.S. President know that it was bedtime.
Even for a Nobel Prize-winning leader of the free world, this had been one of the great nights of his life. Back in his suite at Buckingham Palace, Barack Obama simply wanted to savour the moment. He had just been honoured with a state banquet given by Queen Elizabeth II. Pictured: The Queen and President Obama in 2011
‘I just said: “Yes, Ma’am”,’ George Osborne recalls. ‘I could see Obama with a drink in hand, and I was thinking: What do I do? I couldn’t just interrupt and say: “Oh, the Queen wants you to go to bed”.’
Fortunately, he was saved by the Queen’s private secretary, who gently nudged proceedings to a close.
Still buzzing, the President summoned his two closest aides, including senior speechwriter Ben Rhodes, for a modest after-party in the Belgian Suite, where the Queen accommodates her state visitors.
There was work to do. ‘I really love the Queen,’ Obama told Rhodes. ‘She’s just like Toot, my grandmother. Courteous. Straightforward. All about what she thinks. She doesn’t suffer fools.’
‘They developed a real affinity,’ says Rhodes. ‘He saw how much the Queen went out of her way to make a black American President feel as welcome as possible.
She treated him a lot better than some other leaders [treated him], I can tell you that. ‘That was very powerful.
She and Prince Philip — people who, generationally and racially, couldn’t be more distinct from the Obamas — were trying to strike up a genuine friendship.
Obama was blown away.’ I have been writing about the Queen and the monarchy for 30 years (through good times and some very bad ones), during which I have interviewed her family, her staff, her ministers and her fellow world leaders.
In the course of writing this new biography, I have also studied documents and correspondence, much of it previously unseen.
Time and again over her 70 years on the throne — during which she has been a devoted Head of the Commonwealth — I have seen how the Queen has gone out of her way to promote inter-racial, multi-faith, cross-community cohesion.
All of which will have made it particularly upsetting, in her tenth decade, to find her monarchy facing imprecise yet wounding charges of racism not from republicans or culture warriors — but from within her own family.
From the Queen’s perspective, Harry and Meghan had promised so much, for the country and for the monarchy.
After leaving the Armed Forces in 2015, Prince Harry had thrown himself into several causes, notably the Invictus Games for wounded military personnel.
Eeek! Royal rodent that rattled the President
While Michelle Obama was getting ready for bed in the Orleans bedroom of the Belgian Suite in Buckingham Palace during their first visit, her husband and his advisers sat in the sitting room, adding some final touches to the big speech he was due to make the next day.
At which point, there was an interruption.
It was a Palace butler bringing news of an intruder. ‘Mr President, pardon me,’ whispered the man in the tailcoat. ‘There’s a mouse.’
Without blinking, the President replied: ‘Don’t tell the First Lady.’
The butler assured him that all would be done to catch the unwanted guest.
‘Just don’t tell the First Lady,’ Obama repeated.
As his aide and chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes recalls: ‘He didn’t care, except for the fact that Michelle Obama was terrified of mice.’
Looking back, a decade later, Rhodes remembers another amusing detail from the Obamas’ stay at Buckingham Palace.
It was the only presidential guest quarters the couple ever encountered anywhere in the world without a n een-suite bathroom (there was just an Edwardian toilet in a compartment off the bedroom).
Thanks to the palace’s antiquated layout, state visitors were expected to nip across the corridor to clean their teeth in a bathroom which, owing to its vintage, contained a bath but no shower.
Bundled off to bed early in a house with vermin and a walk to the bathroom, Obama might have been forgiven for viewing his stay at the palace as something of a disappointment.
In fact, the experience reinforced his regard for one of the most impressive world leaders he encountered in his entire presidency.
‘Harry has shot the lights out with Invictus,’ David Cameron observed.
The Prince did not just win admirers at home; he persuaded the U.S. First Lady, Michelle Obama, to become closely involved and secured an interview with Barack Obama during a stint as a guest editor of Radio 4’s Today programme in 2017 (one BBC veteran recalls that the Prince was ‘a grafter’ and one of the most hands-on guest editors the programme had seen).
Another ex-President joined Harry for the 2016 Invictus Games in Florida. ‘I watched very carefully how he can relate to the soldiers,’ says George W. Bush.
‘He cared about them. I left with a very positive impression.’
So when Harry sat down with his American actress fiancée, Meghan Markle, a year later for their engagement interview with the BBC, a new chapter seemed to be dawning for the Royal Family.
The couple had talked excitedly of their future in a Commonwealth context.
The Queen subsequently appointed him as her Commonwealth Youth ambassador.
Shortly before they married, Meghan had joined him as he toured the conference rooms and receptions at the 2018 Commonwealth Youth Summit.
If it was unusual for a royal brideto-be to have a central role at something as important as this, it was proof of the confidence which the Queen had in them both.
The omens would look even better, a month later, when the bride walked into St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
For there, in exquisite hand-stitched detail all over her 16ft veil, were the flowers of every nation of the Commonwealth, a touching and respectful homage to the Queen’s own Coronation gown.
Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, a Los Angeles yoga instructor of African-American heritage, had flown from California — the only member of Meghan’s family present.
Her father, entirely unused to media attention, had been persuaded by a local news agency to pose for photos — seemingly taken by a paparazzo — of him preparing for his daughter’s big day.
When the ruse was exposed, he announced that to spare the couple any embarrassment, he was not coming to the wedding.
It then emerged he was in hospital with serious heart problems.
This unhappy sideshow was exacerbated by the venting of Meghan’s two half-siblings, angry at not being invited to the wedding.
However, there were no invitations either for other seemingly blameless members of the bride’s family, such as Meghan’s uncle, Michael Markle, the U.S. air force veteran and diplomat who had once secured her an internship at the U.S. embassy in Argentina.
The dynamics of her family certainly eclipsed the usual criticisms about the Royal Family being dysfunctional.
Feeling for his future daughter-in-law, the Prince of Wales offered to step in, saying he would be honoured to escort Meghan up the aisle of St George’s Chapel to the altar.
The reply, according to one friend, was not quite what he was expecting: ‘Can we meet halfway?’
Here was an indicator that this was no blushing bride, but a confident, independent woman determined to make a grand entrance on her own.
Across Britain, the overwhelming reaction was one of delight that Harry, one of the most popular members of the Royal Family, had finally found happiness. Windsor had looked its best and even the weather had been perfect.
What more could a monarch want? In October 2018, the Sussexes embarked on an extensive Commonwealth tour of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Coverage was relentlessly positive, yet they made no effort to engage with the accompanying press corps.
On their own tours, the Queen and Prince Philip would usually arrange a reception for both the local media and the travelling press.
The monarch had always worked on the basis that a taxpayer-funded royal trip should be reported. If not, there wasn’t much point to it.
The Sussexes had no such plans. At the end of 16 days of travelling and 76 engagements, from Tonga to Sydney, their officials asked them if they would, at least, acknowledge the press corps.
These were regular accredited royal correspondents and photographers, who cover the Royal Family all the time, not the grenade-throwing columnists or paparazzi whom the couple particularly detested.
Finally, during the last leg of the tour, the couple grudgingly walked to the back of the plane where the press were working.
The Duke kept things short. ‘Thanks for coming,’ he told them, before adding: ‘Not that we invited you.’
This would be the high-water mark of the Sussexes’ relations with the British press.
‘Unfortunately, the couple were still feeling sore about the whole business around Meghan’s father and the press before the wedding,’ says a Palace staffer.
‘That was not going to change.’
At times, it almost seemed as if frustrating the media had become a point of principle for the Sussexes.
Three months after their return from Australia, they were guests of honour at a gala evening for the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust at the Natural History Museum.
Having paid £120 a head, well wishers had at least expected to see and hear the Sussexes, if not receive a handshake.
As the couple arrived, however, huge screens were erected in the atrium to prevent anyone obtaining a photo or even a glimpse as the couple were swiftly ushered into a side room.
‘It was joyless,’ says one benefactor. ‘It felt more like a witness-protection programme than a royal fundraiser.’
By the end of 2018, more and more leaks were finding their way into the papers.
Reports emerged of pre-wedding arguments between Meghan and royal staff over her choice of tiara; between Meghan and the Duchess of Cambridge over a dress-fitting for the bridesmaids.
Among friends and fans of the Duke and the pregnant Duchess, this would all be cited as proof of an agenda of bullying, favouritism (towards the Cambridges) and an undercurrent of closet racism within the press.
The Duchess’s decision to fly by private jet to be feted at a lavish celebrity ‘baby shower’ in the penthouse of a New York hotel pointed to another factor in her troubled relationship with the British press.
What might be par for the course in U.S. celebrity circles simply jarred with what the public expected of members of the Royal Family.
This was not just the usual suspects being horrid or trying to polarise public opinion into ‘Kate versus Meghan’ opposing camps.
From the environmental charity Friends of the Earth to regulars on the parental website Mumsnet, there was robust criticism of a trip which smacked of both excessive extravagance and eco-unfriendly double standards.
As for the ‘Kate versus Meghan’ narrative, royal officials were managing to give that story new-found legitimacy anyway.
On March 14, 2019, the Palace announced that the Cambridges and the Sussexes would be splitting their offices and staff.
This was, in part, down to a fact of royal life. For the moment, both Princes were funded by their father’s Duchy of Cornwall revenues.
As soon as a change of reign occurred, the Duchy of Cornwall would go directly to William. Harry and Meghan’s public duties would then be supported by the new King at Buckingham Palace.
Since the Palace was undergoing a £369million, ten-year refurbishment programme, it made sense to allocate new office space to the Sussexes and their staff now rather than later.
Though there was a cool-headed managerial logic to the Cambridge/Sussex reorganisation, it looked like a rift to many — and the Sussexes felt it as such, says a friend. ‘It could and should have been handled better,’ says one ex-staffer.
‘The Palace hierarchy were being very rigorous and technical about it, but these are two brothers, not a factory production line.’
In 2018, a new private secretary had been appointed to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Simon Case, formerly private secretary to two prime ministers (David Cameron and Theresa May), was a Civil Service high-flyer.
He was evidently expected to deliver swift results at Kensington Palace, since he made it very clear to colleagues that he was not staying for long.
Sure enough, in 2020 he was heading onwards and upwards to become Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service.
But in accelerating the parting of the offices, says a source close to the couple, the institution was unwittingly hastening the Sussexes’ ultimate departure from the royal fold altogether.
Having worked hard to make their Australian trip a success, the couple were also deflated by the lack of feedback from within the institution on their return.
‘It would not have taken much for the hierarchy to say, “Well done,” but the Palace isn’t geared up for that,’ says a source.
Nor did it help that, when the Sussexes were told to move their offices out of Kensington Palace, they were initially offered a back office at Buckingham Palace so small and inadequate that Prince Harry rejected it instantly.
Eventually, an appeal to the Queen ensured that somewhere more appropriate was found alongside the Master of the Household’s team on a main corridor.
In May, relations with both the Palace and the press had reached such a low that the couple decided to handle the news of the birth of their baby on their own terms.
They issued a press statement to say that the Duchess had just gone into labour, even though their baby boy had actually been born hours earlier.
Later, the couple announced the child’s name via Instagram (rather than the Palace).
He would be known as plain Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor.
Although he had a courtesy title as the heir to the dukedom of Sussex — the Earl of Dumbarton — his parents would not be using it.
According to the Telegraph, quoting ‘multiple sources’: ‘They didn’t like the idea of Archie being called the Earl of Dumbarton because it began with the word “dumb”.’
The people of Dumbarton were not pleased. Early in 2020, the Sussexes dropped what almost every newspaper described as a ‘bombshell’.
They were quitting mainstream royal life, and on their own terms, too. ‘We intend to step back as “senior” members of the Royal Family, and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen,’ they announced.
Harry and Meghan had given the Queen and her staff almost no notice, in case the news of their carefully prepared fait accompli should leak. So they were probably surprised when the Palace responded almost immediately.
Feeling for his future daughter-in-law, the Prince of Wales offered to step in, saying he would be honoured to escort Meghan up the aisle of St George’s Chapel to the altar. The reply, according to one friend, was not quite what he was expecting: ‘Can we meet halfway?’. Pictured: Prince Charles walks Meghan down the aisle in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
‘These are complicated issues that will take time to work through,’ said the statement.
In other words, no one, not even a much-loved and popular grandson, was going to tell the monarch how to run her monarchy.
Having listened to advisers with big ideas and little understanding of the complex latticework of conventions underpinning a 1,000-year-old institution, the couple had either misunderstood or miscalculated how the monarchy would have to respond.
Of the many lessons learned during the unhappiness of the 1990s, one that had left a clear impression on the Queen and her officials was that a problem deferred was a problem likely to get even worse.
In short, the Sussexes were offered the choice of ‘in’ or ‘out’, and they plumped for the latter.
By the end of the week, the Queen’s press office issued a statement laying out a very different landscape from the one the couple had projected days before.
They would lose their patronages and military roles, would no longer use their HRH style and would receive no further public funds.
The Palace also revealed that the Queen had insisted on a review of the situation after 12 months, just in case the couple might be having second thoughts. Privately, she wasn’t expecting them to.
Asked by one wellmeaning visitor if she expected them to resume royal life, the Queen replied firmly: ‘Of course not. They took the dogs.’
‘It wasn’t easy for Meghan to adapt to this new life, but she did not allow herself much time,’ says a close charity associate of the Sussexes.
‘Meghan didn’t like the way things were done. She decided it was all wrong and he stood by her. Even so, blowing the whole thing up was a strange thing to do.’
The playboy prince could do no wrong
Prince Harry along with friends and many females partied in an exclusive, heavily guraded, VIP Bungalow at Wet Republic in Las Vegas
In his Army days, Prince Harry could do no wrong in the eyes of the public.
Shortly before he was due to be deployed (for the second time) to Afghanistan in 2012, he slipped out of the country for a pre-deployment ‘lads’ trip’ to Las Vegas with friends (left).
Within days, pictures of a naked Prince playing a game of strip billiards with an equally naked girl at a private party (snapped by a guest, rather than a paparazzo) ended up online and then in the press, to Harry’s eternal dismay.
The public were unfussed.
In the eyes of most people, a hugely popular unattached warrior Prince in his 20s, heading back to the front line, could do no wrong.
Whatever had happened in Vegas, they believed, should stay there.
The Queen and Royal Family were certainly not worried about Harry letting off steam in Nevada.
Like any family sending a loved one off to war, they had much greater concerns.
The Prince had received a forthright piece of advice from his grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh. ‘Going off to Afghanistan, he was very matter of fact,’ Harry recalled, ‘and just said, “Make sure you come back alive”.’
The Prince was also touched by the reaction of the rest of the Armed Forces following the Las Vegas episode.
Hundreds of fellow servicemen — and women — showed their solidarity with their royal comrade by posting naked images of themselves on a military Facebook page entitled, ‘Support Prince Harry with a naked salute’.
‘That really did cheer him up a lot,’ says a friend.
The couple made no attempt to conceal their irritation when the Palace warned their ‘sussexroyal’ brand would have to go.
‘There is not any jurisdiction by the monarchy or Cabinet Office over the use of the word “royal” overseas,’ they responded in a petulant statement, effectively dismissing the authority of the Queen to determine who or what was ‘royal’.
In California, the Sussexes acquired a large house in the fashionable enclave of Montecito and were planning fresh ventures under the banner of their new creation, Archewell. Given its stated mission — ‘to unleash the power of compassion to drive systemic cultural change’ — it was clear that the couple had moved on from royal awaydays to Rotherham.
Within the Palace, however, it was not what the Sussexes had said thus far which was the main cause for concern.
It was what was coming next.
In 2021, came news that the couple were planning an ‘intimate conversation’ on U.S. television network CBS, with Oprah Winfrey.
It was now the Palace’s turn to take the front foot.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it said, would be relinquishing their remaining patronages and appointments — of which the most notable was Harry’s position as Captain General of the Royal Marines.
There was an overtly peevish tone to the Sussexes’ almost immediate response.
‘We can all live a life of service,’ their statement concluded curtly. ‘Service is universal.’
Blast and counterblast continued. No sooner had CBS aired the first trailer from the Winfrey confessional than a newspaper revealed a member of staff at the Palace had made a complaint of bullying behaviour by the Duchess.
The Sussex team hit back, accusing the Palace of ‘a calculated smear campaign’. In their interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made a series of very serious allegations against the Royal Family and the monarchy.
Most toxic of all was the claim that, when the Duchess was pregnant with her son, a member of the Royal Family had voiced ‘concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be.’
She even alleged that Archie’s ethnicity was the reason he lacked a royal title or state protection.
The alleged remark about race rested on a conversation which the Duchess said she had not heard.
‘That was relayed to me from Harry,’ she acknowledged.
She said that it had taken place when she was pregnant.
However, when the Duke finally appeared towards the end of the 85-minute programme, he was clear that it had happened ‘right at the beginning’ of their relationship.
The two accounts, therefore, contradicted each other.
Several other allegations made by them were found to be less than watertight.
Though the Queen very rarely comments when members of the family vent private grievances in public, she made an exception this time.
A Palace statement issued on her behalf contained a deftly diplomatic, yet unambiguous riposte: ‘While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.’
It was not just the accusations themselves which were painful and personal. It was the way in which the Sussexes were prepared to undermine the institution which had put them on their celebrity pedestal in the first place.
For Prince William, there was the added anguish of seeing the younger brother whom he had protected (and who had idolised him) now throwing incendiary and, in some cases, unanswerable charges into the public domain, fully aware of their likely impact.
‘William,’ says one friend, ‘was as low as I’d ever seen him.’
Since the Oprah interview, the brothers have only met twice — at Prince Philip’s funeral and at the unveiling of the statue of their mother at Kensington Palace. Through it all, the one person for whom the Sussexes had nothing but warm words, however, was the Queen.
Nor was this synthetic. ‘Harry adores her. She is the one who has kept the relationship going,’ says a senior aide.
‘He talks to her a lot, not unlike the way Prince Charles used to turn to the Queen Mother.’
Regular communications between the family and the Sussexes have continued, but, given the profound loss of trust after the Oprah interview, the UK side has taken to treading warily.
‘People have been advised that calls may be recorded, so it doesn’t make for a very relaxed situation,’ says one official.
However much the Sussexes’ departure and subsequent actions have upset family members and royal staff, there will have to be some acknowledgement of failings at every level of the institution prior to any sort of resolution.
The couple could and should have been a very great asset to the monarchy.
That they felt unable or unwilling to fulfil that role may have been down to some unrealistic expectations on their part, but that is not the whole story.
Beyond the Palace, there remains a sense of a lost opportunity for the country.
David Cameron, who regards Prince Harry as ‘an enormous asset,’ does not believe that a parting of ways was inevitable.
‘I feel sad that they couldn’t find some sort of halfway house,’ he says, adding that Prince Harry might have been happier with a more defined career path.
Last July, the Duke announced he would publish his autobiography during 2022, in a deal reportedly worth many millions of pounds.
Whether this exercise ultimately clears the air or further entrenches Prince Harry’s sense of grievance remains to be seen.
- Extracted from Queen Of Our Times: The Life Of Elizabeth II by Robert Hardman, to be published by Macmillan on March 17, £20. © 2022 Robert Hardman. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Offer valid until 19/3/2022, UK p&p free on orders over £20.