Rishi Sunak has been accused of entangling the King in toxic Brexit politics by sending him on a controversial tour to ‘schmooze’ EU nations.
Charles’s visit to Berlin and Paris next month – his first overseas trip as monarch – is being seen as a charm offensive as the Prime Minister tries to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol with Brussels.
But some senior Tories last night accused their leader of exploiting the Royal Family for his short-term political ends, amid growing party infighting over the post-Brexit talks.
Some reports suggest the proposed amendments to the protocol could even be called the Windsor Agreement, leading to further claims that No 10 is using the King’s name to advance its own aims.
The visit to the two European power-brokers – defying expectations Charles would follow tradition by ensuring his first regal visit was to a Commonwealth nation – comes after Buckingham Palace responded to a diplomatic plea by the Government to bolster EU relations.
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is said to be close to agreeing a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol with Ursula von der Leyen
But leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg warned Mr Sunak against using the monarch for his ‘own transient political imperatives’.
One Brexit strategist said: ‘Dragging His Majesty into this is a major misstep by No 1 0. Remainers always went insane when there was any suggestion of the Royal Family being involved in Brexit. Now it seems to suit them to send him on an EU schmooze.’
The new row follows the last-minute cancellation of a planned meeting between Charles and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen yesterday, just as the contentious talks between London and Brussels near their conclusion.
Such an unusual encounter – and at such a sensitive time – may have helped win over unionists, whose support is crucial if new trading arrangements are to be agreed. But it could have given the impression the King was giving his blessing to a controversial political issue.
The meeting – whose cancellation was put down to ‘operational reasons’ – would have been likely to raise questions about the judgment of both No 10 and the Palace.
It is understood that the proposed agreement will involve reducing the border checks between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland, and limiting the role of the European Court of Justice in resolving disputes.
No 10 sources told The Mail on Sunday that the EU had ‘gone way outside their comfort zone’ by agreeing to make changes to the protocol, having originally maintained that the treaty could not be renegotiated.
But Tory Brexiteers are sceptical about the talks, believing it is a mistake for the Prime Minister to scrap Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow the UK unilaterally change parts of the deal, in favour of direct negotiation with the EU.
The Brexiteers say No 10 should have involved Mr Johnson in discussions about the negotiations. One said: ‘The Government has failed to engage and roll the pitch [prepare the ground] with Brexiteers. They should have engaged Boris and other senior Brexiteers on this weeks ago. No one will be surprised if their mishandling of this comes back to bite them.’
Last week, Mr Johnson warned Mr Sunak it would be a ‘great mistake’ to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
Meanwhile. Royal insiders say the King and the Queen Consort are undertaking the European state visit – which is also expected to take in Bordeaux – for the sake of Northern Ireland.
One said: ‘While the Monarch is not overtly political, the King’s role is nevertheless to be the best diplomat the Government can deploy.’
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reacts at the start of the European Commission weekly college meeting in Brussels, Belgium
But Mr Rees-Mogg cautioned against using the King as a political tool – and said Charles should have followed the example of his mother by visiting ‘his own realms’ in the Commonwealth first.
The former Cabinet Minister said: ‘Of course, the Government has a long-established and important role in advising the Monarch on his major public engagements.
‘However, it would be wrong if Downing Street has applied pressure on the King to make his first overseas visit on the basis of its own transient political imperatives. The King is equally sovereign of his other realms and has a responsibility to his other Prime Ministers.
‘The late Queen’s first such overseas visit was to a realm and this is the correct precedent to follow.
‘Given the growth of republican sentiment [across the Commonwealth] His Majesty ought to go first to his own realms such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada.’
But a Royal source said: ‘Some might have expected the King to visit the Commonwealth first but of course he takes advice from the Government on which trips happen and when. This trip to Britain’s influential European neighbours is a chance for the King to do what the Monarchy does so well – deploying soft diplomacy on behalf of the British Government.
‘There are reasons why now is a good time to look to our nearest allies as negotiations take place post Brexit over Northern Ireland and the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues. His wish is to do his duty and serve the country by bringing people together.’
Another royal insider: ‘This trip is about Northern Ireland and protecting the relationship [with the rest of the UK] and the people there. The King has visited Northern Ireland every year for around 20 years and it is also likely to be one of his first visits as King.
‘He is well-informed about Irish politics and will want to do whatever he can in a diplomatic capacity to protect the peace process, particularly as the [Royal] family was so greatly affected by the death of Mountbatten’. Louis Mountbatten – the King’s beloved great-uncle– was murdered by an IRA bomb in 1979.
Resolving post-Brexit trade rules between Northern Ireland and both the Irish Republic and the rest of the UK is seen as critical to releasing the political gridlock in the region and ensuring ongoing peace.
A No 10 source close to the negotiations said: ‘Credit to the EU – they’ve gone way outside their comfort zone and what was said to be impossible is close to being delivered – a treaty change in the best interest of Northern Ireland.’
Senior Tories have warned Mr Sunak against using the monarch for his ‘own transient political imperatives’
Brussels is said to be ready to agree to UK proposals to introduce ‘red’ and ‘green’ lanes at Northern Irish ports. Goods intended for the province would go through the fast-moving ‘green lane’, with a higher scrutiny ‘red lane’ for goods travelling on to the Irish Republic and the EU single market Under the proposals, London will also take over full control of issues such as VAT and state subsidies for the province which previously fell to Brussels.
However Brexiteers questioned whether the proposals would truly allow manufacturers in Northern Ireland to deviate from EU regulations, and escape from Brussels’ orbit. They also demanded clarification over the extent to which London would be able to exert genuine control over issues such as VAT.
A source close to Mr Johnson said: ‘No one can make a judgment on the deal until they see it. ’
The King’s visits to Berlin and Paris are scheduled for the end of March, as he also prepares for the May 6 Coronation. It is expected that he will make short visits to major Commonwealth countries later this year.
Meanwhile, other members of the Royal Family will be dispatched in an attempt to quell the increasing republican sentiment – including a major visit yet to be announced for the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Already this month, the Earl and Countess of Wessex have been in the Cayman Islands on behalf of the King and Princess Anne has visited New Zealand.
This will not be the first time the King has helped forge closer ties with our European neighbours.
The most significant recent visit came in November 2020 when the Prince of Wales, as he then was, flew to Germany with Camilla on his 71st birthday. He laid a wreath in Berlin to commemorate the victims of war and tyranny and gave a sincere post-Brexit speech about the connection between the British and German people.
He said: ‘The relationship between our countries is evolving once again. Its shape is a matter negotiated between our governments and its essence is defined by the enduring connections between our people. It is, therefore, my heartfelt belief that the fundamental bond between us will remain strong. We will always be friends, partners and allies. As our countries begin this new chapter in our long history, let us re-affirm our bond for the years ahead.’
In 2017, Prince William was sent to Berlin on a similar diplomatic mission, where he said Britain and Germany would remain ‘the firmest of friends’ despite Brexit.