Ever since William and Kate, Prince and Princess of Wales, moved to their new home on the Windsor estate last year, we have gotten a new type of photo of the latter semi-regularly: Kate Behind The Wheel.
If anyone has ever been in any doubt about the ‘we’re so normal!’ message the Waleses are forever trying to plug, then look no further than the shots that now pop up on the reg. Look! It’s the UK’s next Queen pootling off in her Audi to, I’m assuming, stock up on more Whistles blazers or to add to her Waitrose balsamic vinegar selection!
This week, came the latest, showing Kate in a chic camel coat and chequered scarf, looking for all intents and purposes like every other put-upon mother having to work out how to get grass stains out of a tiny polo uniform the same week she goes back to work.
What is notable is this latest entrant in what has to be the most boring series of paparazzi photos in the history of Fleet Street (‘Woman drives car shock’ is not exactly going to sell papers) is that Kate looks … less than chipper, a certain far-off and pensive look in her eyes.
Maybe it was because she knew she had to help Prince George create a diorama of the Battle of Bosworth Field later (how much glitter should one use to depict Richard III getting clobbered about the head?).
Or, maybe it was because of the global frenzy that has surrounded the publication of her brother-in-law Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex’s tell-all Spare and its withering depiction of royal life.
Now, new numbers have revealed the extent to which the autobiography has hit Kate.
If you haven’t read Spare, and I would not particularly recommend it (I found the section covering the death of Diana, Princess of Wales extraordinarily sad and affecting and the rest a soporific, tedious journey through Harry’s psyche) egos clash, palace fiefdoms are locked in an eternal battle and there is nothing particularly fair about love, war or the monarchy.
The royal family’s approach thus far has been heads down and soldier on chaps, not a single statement or comment leaving the pursed lips of courtiers, aides or anyone with access to the official Buckingham Palace stationery.
The strategy is clear: They are trying to wait out the tempest sparked by the global media press campaign, which has so far rivalled the D-Day landing, around the book’s release.
This Harry PR juggernaut has clearly worked with 1.4 million English-language copies selling on the first day in the UK, US and Canada and the French publisher having to order an extra 130,000 copies after two days. (Vite vite Jacques!)
While Spare might only have been on shelves for a matter of days, those hard workers over at YouGov have been at it though, polling Brits to find out how they are currently feeling about the House of Windsor and the numbers paint a grim picture for anyone with a personal cipher, notably William and Kate.
Their net favourability (that is, the total favourable minus the total unfavourable) sits at 49 per cent for the Prince (70 per cent positive and 21 per cent negative) and 50 per cent for the Princess (68 per cent positive and 18 per cent negative), the lowest figures on record for the duo since polling started in 2011.
Meanwhile, there have been marginal drops in the percentage of people who think the monarchy is a good thing for Britain from September last year, from 62 per cent to 59 per cent and of those who think the country should continue to have a monarchy (67 per cent to 64 per cent).
No wonder Kate looked like she had a lot on her mind when she was snapped this week.
Harry and wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s favourability, in case you are wondering, has now hit new, record lows of -44 per cent and -46 per cent respectively, though do we think they care a jot? Exactly.
For the Waleses, these figures plus the media storm over Spare and its clutch of damaging revelations about them both, including its painting of William as an aggressive bullyboy (RIP that dog bowl) and Kate as demanding, selfish and unwilling to share her lip gloss, come after a rocky year for them.
In March last year, the couple jetted off to wave to the Commonwealth nations of the Caribbean on behalf of the Queen, with no one inside Kensington Palace seeming to have paid any attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and the associated, shifting cultural and political currents. The result was nothing short of a disaster.
We all know what came next: William and Kate finding themselves at the centre of a crisis about race and being forced to come face-to-face with the ghosts of the UK’s colonial past and ties to slavery.
In the face of this 21st-century reckoning, William and Kate’s only response was to rely on that most trusty of Palace tools, the statement. In all, it was a challenge they failed to meet and revealed some serious cracks in the Palace.
As the year continued, the pair struggled to achieve significant cut-through with their legacy projects – the Earthshot Prize and the Early Years Foundation – in the face of the ongoing psychodrama created by the Sussexes and their various highly-lucrative media forays.
The day before William and Kate pitched up in Boston for the second prize, the first trailer for Harry and wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s Netflix series dropped, largely blowing the Waleses’ pro forma meet and greet in the US out of the water, press and public interest-wise.
When the show was released later that month, the second ‘volume’ of the Sussexes’ on-screen complaint-hawking dropped on the same day as Kate’s annual Christmas concert at Westminster Abbey, thus largely overshadowing the merry singalong.
However, what you have to keep in mind when it comes to the royal family is that unlike Hollywood PR sorts or publicists with a weather eye on sales figures, it doesn’t work to a horizon of days or weeks but decades or centuries.
The success of the Prince and Princess won’t be measured by how they perform in the near future or how big the crowds will be when they roll up to open a new hospital ward, but by what historians will be saying about them in the 22nd century.
(Suddenly I’m imagining the British Museum of the future and their display of Queen Catherine’s iconic belongings including her hideous, signature cork wedges. Shudder.)
If we look that far into the future, will Spare and this current tempest have a lasting impact on the Waleses? I’d wager not.
The last 40 or 50 years are littered with examples of various HRHs taking serious hits, popularity and support-wise after certain headline-dominating crises only to rebound through that patent Windsor blend of dutiful hardwork and hat-wearing.
Consider how things looked in 1997. A poll done less than week after Diana’s death put the then Prince of Wales’ favourability at 40 per cent and Camilla Parker Bowles’ at 13 per cent. More than half of those surveyed (54 per cent) thought that Charles should give up the throne in favour of son William succeeding Queen Elizabeth and only 18 per cent of respondents thought that monarchy would survive for another 100 years.
Today, Charles is viewed positively by 62 per cent of people and Camilla by 42 per cent. Just under half (47 per cent) think that the crown will still be around this time next century.
And at the end of the day, that’s what the monarchy comes down: They are in the survival business.
Ironically, that point is also one of the clear lines of Spare, that everything and anyone can be sacrificed to ensure that the institution will endure, no matter the potential human cost.
The challenge for William and Kate – not only as the next King and Queen but as the parents of the next heir and two spares – is to make the royal family stand for something much more meaningful and relevant than as a bunch of widely liked plaque-openers who symbolise continuity and duty.
They need to do more than occasionally bolster national pride and the bunting industry but prove that there is a place for a monarchy in the 21st – and 22nd centuries – as a genuinely relevant outfit that makes a tangible contribution to British society.
How, I wonder, will history remember the Sussexes? As brave rebels or as cautionary tales? As revolutionaries or as huffy refuseniks? Either way, at least there will probably be a book in for one of their great-grandchildren.
· Daniela Elser is a writer and a royal commentator with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.