The Prince of Wales has been given a major boost in his hopes of succeeding the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth after leaders suggested he would be the obvious choice.

As the Queen opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, she dropped a heavy hint that the Prince would be the natural choice, even though it is not an inherited post and some member states want an elected head. The Queen said she could not "wish to have been better supported and represented in the Commonwealth than by the Prince of Wales, who continues to give so much to it with great distinction".

The Prince, accompanying his mother at only his fourth Commonwealth summit, has made no secret of the fact that becoming Head of the Commonwealth when he is king is one of his ambitions. At a reception after the opening ceremony, it appeared that the Queen's message had got through.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said: "I'm not sure why there's even a question about it. The title should just go with the Crown. I know the Prince of Wales may be keen to tread carefully but he'd be great."

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Charles Savarin, the President of Dominica, said: "I didn't even know that the headship was not automatic. Of course it should be Prince Charles."

One Commonwealth leader known to have republican leanings said: "I have no doubt it will be Charles. He would not have the longevity or the unifying power of the Queen; no one can match that. But apart from anything else, who else would you have?"

There was also some good news for the Queen after it emerged that this Commonwealth summit will not be her last. Britain is likely to step in to host the next meeting after the original host nation, the Pacific island of Vanuatu, pulled out because of extensive damage caused by Cyclone Pam in March.

It had been thought that the Queen, who no longer travels long haul, would have missed at least the next two Commonwealth summits because of the distances involved. However, senior sources said the UK was now expected to be the venue, with the meeting held in 2018, rather than 2017, as planned.

The Commonwealth's newest leaders, including Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, broke a golden rule of royal protocol by keeping the Queen waiting after getting stuck in traffic.

Five minutes after the reception at the San Anton presidential palace was to have started, none of the 10 guests had arrived. "Are you sure they're here?" Prince Charles joked to lighten the mood as the Queen peered around the entrance to the Grand Master's Hall where the reception was held.

Trudeau and Nigerian President Muhammad Buhari were first to arrive, followed by the premiers or representatives from Fiji, Guyana, Malawi, St Kitts and Nevis, Sri Lanka and Trinidad and Tobago. Australia's new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was one of the last.

The Queen looked slightly stern as she chatted to Turnbull, a former head of his country's republican movement, but he seemed delighted to meet the monarch.