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Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Could Be 'Vital Players' Had They Stayed in the U.K.: 'They Desperately Need Him'

"Nobody could have foreseen the set of circumstances that would expose that so dramatically," royal author Catherine Mayer tells PEOPLE

<p>Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty; Patrick van Katwijk/Getty</p> King Charles Visits visits New Malden Methodist Church in November 2023 in New Malden, England; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at at the wheelchair basketball final between the United States and France during the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf, Germany, in September 2023.

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty; Patrick van Katwijk/Getty

King Charles Visits visits New Malden Methodist Church in November 2023 in New Malden, England; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at at the wheelchair basketball final between the United States and France during the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf, Germany, in September 2023.

As King Charles undergoes cancer treatment and Kate Middleton recovers from abdominal surgery, many are wondering how things may have been drastically different for the royal family had Meghan Markle and Prince Harry not stepped back from their working roles.

"This is a slimmed-down monarchy in the ways the King could never have anticipated. This puts into much sharper focus what a terrible mistake it was for Harry to leave,” royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's cover story. “If he and Meghan had stayed in Britain and stuck with their jobs, they could be very vital players right now.”

“They desperately need him, and nobody could have foreseen the set of circumstances that would expose that so dramatically,” adds Catherine Mayer, the author of Charles: The Heart of a King.

Over a year and a half after the death of Queen Elizabeth, who provided seven decades of stability to her family and the nation until her death at age 96 in September 2022, the royals appear vulnerable. Along with the absence of Prince Harry, 39, and Meghan, 42, following their decision to step back from their royal roles in 2020, the current onslaught of issues feels unprecedented.

Andy Stenning - WPA Pool/Getty Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, King Charles and Queen Camilla at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth on September 19, 2022.
Andy Stenning - WPA Pool/Getty Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, King Charles and Queen Camilla at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth on September 19, 2022.

Related: Prince Harry Reached Out to Prince William Ahead of U.K. Visit: 'It's Terribly Sad,' Source Says (Exclusive)

King Charles, 75, has postponed public-facing duties while receiving cancer treatment, while the Princess of Wales, 42, has also been outside of the spotlight while recovering from abdominal surgery in January.

Though Kensington Palace said Princess Kate was unlikely to return to public duty until after Easter, the lack of clarity sparked numerous conspiracy theories about her health and whereabouts. In response to the speculation, the palace released a rare second statement reiterating the initial timeline for her return to work.

<p>Adrian Dennis / AFP via Getty</p> Prince George, Kate Middleton and King Charles on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2023.

Adrian Dennis / AFP via Getty

Prince George, Kate Middleton and King Charles on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2023.

“The monarchy needs to be that anchor in times of trouble, and any sense of instability, which is inevitable when you have two of the key players out of action, is understandable,” says Bedell Smith.

“This is massively exposing how the royal family has gone from too many people to too few in a short space of time,” adds Mayer.

Despite the distance between Prince Harry and his family, he flew from California to visit his father on Feb. 6, the day after the palace publicly announced the news about the King’s health. However, he did not see his brother, Prince William, or sister-in-law, Princess Kate, during his whirlwind 24 hours in the U.K. The Duke of Sussex has openly spoken about his desire for reconciliation and is thought to have contacted his brother, though there were “no plans” to meet, a palace source said at the time.

<p>Jeff J Mitchell - WPA Pool/Getty</p> King Charles and Prince Harry at Queen Elizabeth's lying-in-state procession on Sept. 14, 2022.

Jeff J Mitchell - WPA Pool/Getty

King Charles and Prince Harry at Queen Elizabeth's lying-in-state procession on Sept. 14, 2022.

Related: Royal Family in Turmoil as Demands Mount for More Transparency: 'There Is Too Much Uncertainty' (Exclusive)

A former courtier suggests Prince William’s “principal concern is his wife" amid her recuperation, but the lack of interaction highlights the hurt between the brothers.

"It would be the normal run of things to go and see your sister-in-law who's had a serious operation and also see your niece and nephews. But it isn't normal. It's terribly sad,” a source close to the royal household tells PEOPLE.

Still, there have been some positive developments. According to a palace insider, both King Charles and Prince Harry have taken “baby steps” towards restoring their relationship.

“I’m sure it was emotionally draining for both of them, but it was a step in the right direction. It was a positive move,” the source says of their quick visit. Having flown overnight from L.A., the Duke of Sussex would have liked to spend more than 30 minutes or so together, but he was “grateful to be able to speak directly to his father and show his support for him,” says a source.

PEOPLE Magazine, March 18.
PEOPLE Magazine, March 18.

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Trust continues to be a concern following Prince Harry’s candid memoir Spare and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s revealing Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan. During Harry’s visit with King Charles, Queen Camilla made a deliberate effort to be in the room.

“This is all to do with William’s wish to protect the institution of the monarchy, which he feels Harry can’t be trusted with. I don’t think William will ever agree to readmission of Harry into the family unless he clearly apologizes and moves forward,” says royal author Robert Lacey.

Adds royal biographer Ingrid Seward, author of My Mother and I, "Of course he would like Harry to be the prodigal son and come back and would be much happier if William and Harry were friends again. But he realizes that is just not about to happen."

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