Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex and Duchess Meghan of Sussex intend to step back their duties and responsibilities as senior members of the British Royal Family, Jan. 9, 2020.
Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex and Duchess Meghan of Sussex intend to step back their duties and responsibilities as senior members of the British Royal Family, Jan. 9, 2020.

Britain’s so-called "red-top" tabloid newspapers lost no time pivoting this week from the prospect of war in the Middle East to family wars in Buckingham Palace — their preferred beat and a circulation booster for publications that are flagging in the internet era.

“ROYAL BREAK,” screamed the Sun newspaper. “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle quit as senior royals, will become ‘financially independent’ and ‘didn’t tell Queen.’”

“Queen ‘hurt’ not to be told about Harry and Meghan quitting royal life,” the Metro blazoned across its front page. The Mirror declared: “Meghan Markle and Harry 'using fame as bargaining chip to get what they want.’”

It reported the queen was “crushed.”

Even the country’s supposedly "quality" newspapers waded into a royal mess, one prompted by Prince Harry and his American-born wife, TV actress Meghan Markle, deciding to, in their words, “step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”

Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex and Duchess Meghan of Sussex intend to step back their duties and responsibilities as senior members of the British Royal Family. , Jan. 9, 2020.

In their statement the couple did not mention the word "quit," but they talked instead about continuing “to carry out their duties for Her Majesty The Queen,” while dividing “time between the United Kingdom and North America” — most likely Canada, where Markle lived for several years while shooting the TV soap Suits.

They added: “This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.” Aside from charitable work, the pair appear to have business plans, too, and have reportedly retained the American PR company Sunshine Sachs — based in Los Angeles — while filing to register "Sussex Royal” and “Sussex Royal Foundation," their charitable arm, as UK trademarks.  

There’s even talk in the media that Markle intends to re-launch her acting career. And brand experts say the couple could make hundreds of millions of dollars from lucrative merchandising, interviews and marketing.

Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph reported that the queen and Prince Charles, Harry’s 71-year-old father, and the heir apparent, were “incandescent” with rage at an announcement that hadn’t been approved by Buckingham Palace.

The formal response from the palace was a terse one-sentence statement: “Discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”

Few young couples wanting to spin off from the family firm and to set up their own business and establish a distinct brand would face such media outrage. But when you are sixth in line to Britain’s throne it isn’t so easy to navigate an exit — if only a partial and bespoke one.

And that’s especially so when you are the son of the late Diana Spencer, the erstwhile wife of Prince Charles. The collapse of the Charles-Diana marriage became ensnared in a media frenzy with the tabloids adding insult to injury as much as they could. Both Charles and Diana, the princess of Wales, and their staffs, were drawn in, leaking against each other to try to manipulate the press coverage of their tumultuous separation and bitter divorce, say royal commentators.

Britain’s media smells blood again — and rising sales.

Amid the furor there was hardly space to report that Britain’s House of Commons passed Brexit legislation for the country to leave the European Union, an exit that will likely have much longer term and far more serious implications for Britons than the :royal exit."

Even U.S. President Donald Trump commented on the development, telling a Fox News interviewer: “I have such respect for the queen. I don’t think this should be happening.” He added: "I think this is sad.”

Britain's Queen Elizabeth poses, after recording her annual Christmas Day message in Windsor Castle, in Berkshire, Britain, in this undated pool picture released on Dec. 24, 2019.

Why all the fuss?

Britain’s Economist magazine noted that Harry and Meghan are not a “natural fit” with the stiff House of Windsor.

And the palace had become increasingly frustrated with the couple for their non-traditional ways and their chafing at the norms of royal life — including suing British newspapers and openly talking about a breach between Harry and his older brother, Prince William. A TV documentary shot by their friend, British newscaster Tom Bradby, especially set royal teeth on edge, a former palace official, who asked not to be identified, told VOA.

In the documentary they spoke about their discontent with their royal lives, and fury at the intrusive and at times hostile media attention. Meghan told Bradby: “I've really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip. I've tried, I've really tried.  But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging. The biggest thing that I know is that I never thought this would be easy. But I thought it would be fair. And that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile.”

Friends of the couple say they felt forced out, and they note that there was no photograph of Harry and Meghan beside the queen when she gave her traditional Christmas Day address to the nation — there were of Charles and Prince William.

None of this has sat well with the rest of the royal family, nicknamed in Britain, "the firm" — nor the tabloids, whose traditional "middle England" readership has expectations about how royals should behave.

The couple’s announcement about defining “a progressive new role” for themselves has only widened the rift, say commentators,  prompting fears among palace insiders that an unleashed "brand Sussex" could eclipse Prince Charles and Prince William, with Harry and his wife rivaling the more senior royals for influence.

One of the family’s uppermost fears, says the former place official, is “losing control of the various parts of ‘the firm’ — and of Harry and Meghan not appreciating that ‘royals have to act differently from celebrities in order to ensure the standing and longevity of the institution, which relies on public goodwill to survive.”

He says there’s also alarm that unleashed, the couple, Meghan especially, could become more outspoken and active politically, which risks blowback on the British monarchy, which in the modern day has endeavored to remain above the political fray fearing abolition otherwise.   
Supporters of the Sussexes retort that the slavish observance of stiff protocols hasn’t shielded the royal family from scandal in the past.

The royal family is still absorbing the stepping down in November from public life by Prince Andrew, also known as the Duke of York, and reputedly the favorite son of Queen Elizabeth, over his friendship with the late American billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

But even those sympathetic to the young couple’s desire to have more freedom to define modern roles for themselves accuse the pair of naivete — and of wanting it both ways. The Times said in a measured editorial that alarm bells are ringing because the couple appears to want to mix private and public roles.

It noted the couple wants to become financially independent and to conduct their lives without restrictions, while retaining their royal status, and having exclusive use of Frogmore Cottage on a royal estate outside London. They also want to retain their security detail, again at taxpayer expense, and they plan to continue to receive nearly $3 million a year from the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns 53,000 hectares of land and is worth more than $1.5 billion.

The Duchy of Cornwall is considered a public asset and, according to an opinion poll, two-thirds of Britons say Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's funding from the estate should stop as they throttle back from their senior royal roles.“

If they wish to pursue alternative careers it would be better if they followed the example of some of their cousins and renounced their royal status and gave up all royal duties,” The Times suggested.