King’s absence from Commonwealth visits could cause headache for monarchy

The King in Australia in 2012
The King was expected to visit Australia this year with the Queen - Chris Jackson/Getty

The prospect of the King missing crucial forthcoming visits to Commonwealth realms could prove problematic amid increasing calls to break ties with the British monarchy.

The King, 75, is unlikely to return to public duties for several months as he undergoes cancer treatment, leaving his travel plans up in the air.

The King and Queen were expected to visit Canada in spring and then travel to Samoa in October for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm), before going on to Australia.

The tours would have marked the monarch’s first visits to Commonwealth realms since he ascended the throne and were considered critical in terms of shoring up support.

The timing was crucial, with several indicating that they want to sever ties with the British Royal family and remove the King as head of state.

‘European visits prioritised post-Brexit’

In Australia, Anthony Albanese, the prime minister, confirmed last year that his desire for a referendum remained undimmed. “I want to see an Australian as Australia’s head of state,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean that you cannot have respect for the institution, which is the system of government that we have. And I believe, as the Australian prime minister, I have a particular responsibility to represent the nation in a way that respects the constitutional arrangements, which are there.”

Many expressed surprise that the King’s first overseas tours as monarch were to France and Germany respectively.

The next was to Kenya, a member of the Commonwealth but not a realm.

Dr Craig Prescott, a constitutional law lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, said it was clear the British government had prioritised post-Brexit relations with Europe.

“It is notable that the first two visits were to Europe and clearly, this was on government advice,” he said.

“It certainly feels that the Government chose to make those relationships the priority and the Commonwealth has been put slightly on the back seat.”

In theory, the Prince of Wales could stand in for his father on such important foreign trips.

The Prince and Princess of Wales carried out their royal tour of the Caribbean in March 2022
The Prince and Princess of Wales carried out their royal tour of the Caribbean in March 2022 - Jane Barlow/PA

But Kensington Palace has its own itinerary and as popular as both the Prince and Princess of Wales are in these countries, their presence is not akin to that of the head of state.

Although the King stood in for his own ailing mother at Chogm meetings in both Rwanda in 2022 and Sri Lanka in 2013, the head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary title, meaning that Prince William would have to be invited to open such a meeting by world leaders.

In 2018, Commonwealth leaders announced that the King would become the next head of the organisation after the Queen said it was her “sincere wish” to be succeeded by her son.

But the Prince of Wales has acknowledged that there is no guarantee the mantle will eventually pass to him.

In March 2022, following his ill-fated Caribbean tour, the Prince issued an unprecedented statement about the future of the Commonwealth, acknowledging that he may not succeed his grandmother or his father as head of the organisation as he vowed not to “tell people what to do”.

Prince William and Catherine in a bobsleigh during their Caribbean tour
Prince William said his Caribbean tour highlighted questions about the past and the future - Chris Jackson

Reflecting on his eight-day tour, the Prince spoke candidly about how it had “brought into even sharper focus” questions about the past and the future.

As for other state visits, the Waleses’ have their own commitments, not least the annual Earthshot awards and appear increasingly reluctant to go away on lengthy tours while their children are young.

What that means for the Commonwealth remains unchartered territory.

Dr Prescott added: “There is a constitutional need for some Commonwealth realms to see their King.

“Australians and Canadians are as entitled to see their head of state as we are, in many ways and if the King is unable to travel it cannot be good for the institution.

“As Elizabeth II always said, she had to be seen to be believed.”