All eyes on Prince William as his role as heir to the throne has never been more important

Sources say Prince William will not be taking on tons of the King’s engagements as the monarch undergoes treatment for cancer
Sources say the Prince of Wales will not be taking on most of the King’s engagements as the monarch undergoes treatment for cancer - Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
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There have been moments this week when everything in the Royal family seemed almost normal. On Wednesday, the Prince of Wales held an investiture before making a speech at an air ambulance fundraiser. The next day, the Queen met with multiple charities and attended a concert at Salisbury Cathedral. Princess Anne, obviously, was out and about on engagements, this time with ponies.

It was only the topic of conversation that gave the game away. “How is the King?” the public wondered. And, unsaid: “What happens now?”

Back at Sandringham, where he is often seen clearing his head on the countryside estate he has managed since the death of Prince Philip, the King was working privately. He took a call from the Prime Minister - a personal exchange of pleasantries rather than their official weekly audience - and has been writing letters, going through his red boxes, and talking to senior aides.

He also, as the world now knows, has cancer.

The red boxes now contain not just his papers of State, but letters of sympathy and encouragement.

Like any family whose patriarch is given such a life-changing diagnosis, there have been brave faces and worried conversations. Like no other family on Earth, there is also the unavoidable question of what comes next, and what it means for a country and Commonwealth which has already been shaken by the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

With a slimmed-down monarchy now so slim its public engagements are being largely carried out by women in their 70s, the public can be forgiven for wondering what is going to fill the vacuum left by a King who can no longer, for now, get out and about in public?

All eyes have turned to the Prince of Wales.

The Prince and Princess of Wales
The Prince of Wales and his young family have the star power and public support the monarchy needs - Samir Hussein/WireImage

At 41, just 17 months into the job, the Prince’s role as next in line to the throne has never been more important.

Reliably at the top of the Royal family’s “most popular” polls - the latest from YouGov shows him with 77 per cent approval - he and his young family have the star power and public support the monarchy needs.

But as of this week, he finds himself - as one source delicately puts it - in an “unenviable position”.

“It is … suboptimal,” said another.

Prince William’s wife has been seriously unwell, only just beginning a long recuperation from abdominal surgery. His father will be out of the public eye for an unknown period of time while the King waits to discover how he responds to treatment for an unnamed cancer.

“Expect to see more of Prince William,” said the Washington Post. “The heir to the throne will confront new demands on his time,” the New York Times declared. “A soft regency?” wondered the Guardian.

King will continue to fulfil essential constitutional functions

The Constitution Unit at UCL, the country’s most reliable source on such matters, has published a Q&A explaining what would happen in situations ranging from a “halfway house”, where William could take on more duties, to a full regency.

“The King will continue to fulfil his essential constitutional functions like granting royal assent to laws, appointing ministers and other senior officials, and holding his weekly audience with the Prime Minister,” Prof Robert Hazell predicts.

“His absence from public appearances will mean more royal visits being undertaken by other senior royals: Princess Anne, Queen Camilla, Prince William, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie.

“We are a long way from triggering the provisions of the Regency Acts.”

At the most recent investiture, William looked a little thinner, a little more careworn than he has of late. As a military band played the national anthem, he blinked rapidly with a furrowed brow over the strains of God Save the King - the tune so familiar, the keyword of “King” still so new to the nation.

Later that night, at a hotel for London’s Air Ambulance gala fundraiser, he was more like his old self, leaning in to speak to fellow air ambulance helicopter pilots and the patients they have saved; clapping Tom Cruise on the shoulder and making jokes about his Top Gun-themed shoes.

Afterwards, he went home to Windsor ready for the morning’s school run and caring for his wife.

‘The King is still the King’

He will not, sources emphasise, be taking on tons of the King’s engagements, with both Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace mindful not to make sweeping changes to the public face of the monarchy before necessary.

As a palace aide says: “The King is still the King.”

In other words, he can and will still fulfil his state duties. The only current hole will be outside the palaces, where the 500-odd engagements he does every year will temporarily fall by the wayside to minimise risks to his health.

“William can’t really win on this one,” worries one long-term royal watcher. “Either he keeps calm and carries on with his own programme, and people say he isn’t stepping up. Or he steps up, and people think he is trying to be King-like or - worse - that his father isn’t capable and needs him to step up.”

A palace source said there was “constant conversation” between the King and Prince William’s teams, but that the Prince was not expected to pick up all of his father’s engagements - a mutual decision.

“This week has been a reminder that yes they [the Royal Family] are in these public positions, but they’re also human beings,” says one who knows William.

“Think about it: his life partner who he’s been with since university has had major surgery. They have three children and all of the worry about keeping things normal for them. Then on top of that you find out your father has cancer?

“It’s only been four days.”

Inside both palaces, there is palpable distaste at the idea of discussing any future that is not the King’s swift and full recovery. Aides are keen that no one starts to “think the unthinkable”.

Indeed, Team Wales will continue a long-planned restructure for their future in the monarchy’s supporting role.

Still seeking a CEO - the first time such a position has been introduced at a palace - Kensington Palace will soon have two new private secretaries, thought to be the late Queen’s equerry Lieutenant Colonel Tom White in the case of the Princess, and a safe pair of former Foreign Office hands for the Prince.

Ian Patrick, who worked for the FCO and was awarded MBE for his work on international peacekeeping, is set to join the household, on hand to help the Prince expand his geopolitical presence as he increasingly represents King and country.

“He’s very aware of the future in front of him,” a source said of William.

“They [the Waleses] take their commitment to duty and service very, very seriously, and he has made decisions about his life based on being heir to the throne. That weighs on his mind constantly.”

First and foremost, his priority is to see the Princess safely back on her feet.

“Do not expect him to say or do anything about the future until his wife is recovered,” said a former royal aide.

“He will always do the right thing, and for his wife and father right now that also means not jumping too many steps ahead.”

He and all those who work for him will hope that a future as King William V is not raised again until he is a much older man, with three grown-up children settled into their own working lives.

Queen will be front and centre

For now, it is the Queen who will be front and centre while her husband is working from home.

Determined to carry on with her engagements while supporting her husband in his treatment, she is said by one source to nevertheless have taken the news harder than her cheerful public appearances have so far let on.

Another source - who has seen her this week - disagreed, saying: “I see resilience, devotion, optimism.”

Princess Anne, who maintains the busiest schedule albeit with fewer headlines, has made no secret of her frustrations over the lack of youngsters stepping in to replenish the older generation.

A slimmed-down monarchy, she has said “doesn’t sound like a good idea from where I’m standing”.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will next week spend three days in Canada promoting the Invictus Games - Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Prince Harry, who would once have supported his father and brother in a practical sense by picking up some of the slack, has jetted in and out of Britain and will next week spend three days in Canada with Meghan promoting his Invictus Games with all the publicity that entails.

There is a weary acceptance back in Britain that details of his short meeting with the King may come out.

The Buckingham Palace office, in a situation unprecedented in modern times, is simply having to wait and see what unfolds over the coming weeks and months.

The King’s schedule will be determined by how he is feeling on a day-to-day basis.

All the administrative decisions that would ordinarily be made in the early years of a reign - the Royal Warrants, the reconfirmation of Patronages, the signing-off of all manner of things across the Realms - will need to take a temporary back seat behind the more pressing problems.

Plunged into the dreaded “sandwich generation” - worrying about a young family and a parent - Prince William, a source said, is in the same position as “hundreds and thousands of others up and down the country” but also “doing it under a magnifying glass”.

He will be off work next week for half term, as is the Waleses custom. It will keep life stable for Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, and perhaps the nation as well.

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