Prince Harry looked distinctly bleary-eyed when he showed up Wednesday morning for a long-standing charity fundraiser in the city of London.
He couldn’t keep the smile off his face, however, and the reason for his happy dishevelment was a busted secret: He had only landed in the U.K. at 6:25 that morning, back home from a two-weeks-long official royal tour of the Caribbean. The twist? He had just made a 1,700-mile detour to visit his girlfriend, American actress Meghan Markle, in Toronto.
As dramatic romantic gestures go, this was a biggie, especially when you consider the political cost to Harry.
He had been scheduled to fly directly to London from Barbados but instead stopped off in Toronto. And while the itinerary may seem to make a certain amount of geographical, carbon-footprint-limiting sense, it has been attracting mountains of criticism in the British press.
The newspapers are fuming, outwardly alleging that Harry has seen fit to play fast and loose with rules established in the wake of Prince Andrew’s various tax-payer funded outrages, which explicitly prohibits royals from mixing business and pleasure trips.
The protocol is pretty strict. It was drawn up in 2004, after Andrew was lambasted for combining official business with golfing breaks.
The Royal Household assured the National Audit Office that such behaviour would stop, saying at the time: “In order to avoid confusion, combining private and public engagements in the same trip is actively discouraged.”
But drill down a little, and it turns out what has really annoyed the press pack is that Harry—and his team—actively lied to reporters when asked direct questions about whether Harry was going to Canada on his way home.
Richard Palmer, an experienced royal reporter at the Daily Express, wrote that “a few moments before the Prince and his party left Ogle Airport in Georgetown, Guyana, on a charter plane bound for Barbados on Sunday afternoon to join a scheduled British Airways service to Gatwick, a Daily Express reporter asked one aide: ‘Can I just check, is Prince Harry flying on BA to London from Barbados tonight?’ The aide replied: ‘Yes.’”
The naked deception marks a new low in the contemptuous manner Kensington Palace sees fit to treat the British press.
Palmer was so enraged at the cover-up that he detailed exactly the lies that were told, and even named names. He wrote that, “At a pre-tour briefing at Buckingham Palace on November 10, Jason Knauf, the communications secretary for William, Kate and Harry, said the Prince would be travelling directly from London to the Caribbean and back again.”
Harry and his youthful press team are playing a dangerous game in telling outright lies to the press. Not only does such behaviour eliminate all trust, it is immensely alienating to reporters, whose jobs (and mortgages) depend on getting accurate information to their readers.
It was also, needless to say, an open goal; the Sun got the story that Harry was visiting Meghan anyway, and the story of Harry’s flagrant disregard for protocol and abuse of taxpayer funds is now leading news coverage.
The story was the “most read” item on even the patriotic Daily Telegraph’s website on Wednesday. The scandal has entirely eclipsed the wonderful, positive PR for the monarchy that the gruelling two-week tour of the Caribbean had generated.
So, how could Harry, and his advisers, have been so stupid?
Part of the answer lies in the unattractive arrogance that is becoming a defining characteristic of the young royals. Another part lies in the inexperience of Harry’s underpaid press team and their well-documented inability to say no to their masters.
Some insiders say that the press operation has been chaotic since old timer Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton left two years ago. This summer Nick Loughran, a former police spokesman, left KP for PR firm Freuds after he split up with his former girlfriend, Kate Middleton’s aide Rebecca Deacon, and started going out with Harry’s assistant, Clara Madden.
But, even given these mitigating circumstances, there is only really one explanation that makes sense: This was a make-or-break visit.
And judging by Harry’s cat-that-got-the-cream grin this morning, it went well.
Markle and Prince Harry met in May at an event for the Invictus Games in Toronto and have been a couple since June. Last month Harry issued an open letter criticising the press for the “racist undertones” of their coverage of Markle who is mixed race, and, bizarrely, attacking “social media trolls” for being mean about her.
The statement was, predictably, completely ineffective as to its stated aims but, because it confirmed the relationship, it did whip up massive global interest in Markle, an L.A. native who lives in Toronto to film USA’s Suits.
Markle was then photographed walking into Kensington Palace, after a shopping trip to a branch of Whole Foods located in the same building as Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.
It’s all very odd, and there are only really three explanations; 1) the press team at Kensington Palace have lost their minds, 2) Harry is on the point of proposing to Meghan, or, even more intriguingly, 3) he already has.
In the case of 2) or 3), the stop in Toronto suddenly makes sense; Harry may have judged the long game was worth the short-term criticism and negative headlines.
It’s hard to know, as even Harry’s close friends have not been let in on the details of the relationship, and any who have been aren’t speaking.
As the gender of Kate Middleton’s babies and the later-reported twists in Harry’s romances have shown, the royal family have rediscovered the art of keeping secrets. The circle of trust in this affair is tiny. It is believed that only William and Kate, both of whom have met Markle, are fully informed of where the relationship is at.
But if Harry and Markle are taking their relationship to the next level, their hand is likely to be forced into announcing an engagement sooner rather than later.
And all the signs are there: Meghan has been spotted wearing a personalized gold necklace that appears to be subtly decorated with the letters M and H.
The actress has posted an Instagram showing her dog Guy dressed in a Union Jack printed coat.
As the furor surrounding the Toronto stopover shows, taking planes to go on dates isn’t really practical for a high-profile royal.
If they got engaged, and she was prepared to give up her career, there would be no reason why Markle shouldn’t move into KP immediately. Given that she has already stayed overnight there, there is unlikely to be any objection on protocol grounds form the queen.
Markle cannot be given taxpayer-funded protection unless she and Harry are actually engaged.
Matters may come to a head over the forthcoming holiday period.
Rumors are rife that Harry and Meghan are planning a winter vacation, and an announcement of an engagement in the New Year would be a delightful—but not entirely surprising—development.