One of the notable things that has changed over the years in terms of the Duke and
They memorably took ten-month
I have covered all of their tours – from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America, to India, Bhutan, Pakistan and India, bar one – and I spoke to Kate, briefly, about how difficult it was to leave your children behind on these trips, which can often be several weeks end to end, when we were in the remote kingdom of Bhutan in 2016. George would have been two then, and Charlotte less than a year.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dancing in Tuvalu on the royal tour in 2012
The duchess, who is always instinctively very private, really does come alive when she talks about her children and she mentioned how her two were being looked after by her parents, Michael and Carole Middleton, at their Berkshire home. They are clearly doting grandparents, but the only thing, Kate said, was that every time she video-called home George seemed to be eating chips!
It was a story that struck a chord with me. I told her how after I had returned from their lengthy visit to Australia and New Zealand in 2014, I was driving with my then three-year-old son in the back of the car. I had never taken him to McDonald’s before but as we passed those famous ‘Golden Arches’ a little voice piped up, squeaking excitedly, ‘Top Donalds!’
‘Has Daddy taken you there?’ I sighed. ‘Yes! Lots!’
Kate giggled at that too.
Tours are a crucial part of royal working life. A chance to utilise the Royal Family’s legendary ‘soft diplomacy’ and sell Britain plc abroad. There’s been no better trailblazer for this than the Queen, who has charmed kings, queens, Communists, presidents, autocrats and benevolent dictators alike.
Kate at the As Syakirin Mosque in Kuala Lumpur in 2012
And with William’s support, Kate set about learning from the best. Night after night she would sit mugging up on the protocol, talking to the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and picking the brains of her diplomatic advisors.
It was from the Queen that Kate learnt to pay a subtle tribute to her hosts: adding red maple leaves to a Lock & Co hat for Canada Day in Ottawa in 2011, for example, or wowing in a yellow Roksanda shift dress in Sydney in 2014, a nod to Australia’s national flower the golden wattle.
It was on that Canada trip that I first experienced the newly dubbed ‘Kate Effect’. The sun beat down as we waited, sweltering, behind a media barrier to see the newlyweds take Ottawa by storm.
They were on their first official tour as a married couple, and some 350,000 people had packed onto Parliament Hill to see them arrive in an open-topped landau carriage as part of the nation’s Canada Day celebrations.
The roar that erupted when they appeared, which rippled through the packed crowds like a Mexican wave, was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end – journalistically speaking, that is. I was one of 1,300 British and worldwide media accredited for the trip. That, in a nutshell, encapsulated the full extent of Kate’s soaring popularity.
Diana’s son and his beautiful bride were the Royal Family’s new superstars and the world was agog. (In LA on that same trip, Nicole Kidman – yes, the Oscar-winning actress – was squealing with excitement at the prospect of meeting the royal couple. That’s the power of royalty.)
Prince William at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his tour of the Middle East in 2018
Given such levels of adulation, it may come as a surprise to know that behind the scenes, this was still a couple feeling their way. One senior official who was on the trip tells me, ‘I remember the duchess coming in on the second day and asking if she was “doing OK”.
‘We’d just seen scenes akin to Beatlemania, and she was asking if she was “doing OK”. I think that tells you quite a lot. There was a humility about her, coupled with a desire to get it right. That was the hallmark of those early years. And she didn’t put a foot wrong.’
Her ability to charm a crowd is instinctive and should not be underestimated. Shaking hundreds of hands, making polite smalltalk and conjuring up an air of genuine interest day after day, for weeks on end, is not for the faint-hearted.
They used to call the late Queen Mother the ‘steel marshmallow’: soft on the outside, with a rod of metal running through her. And Kate is very much in the same vein.
I remember the moment this dawned on me as if it were yesterday. We were in Malaysia in 2012 when sadly news broke that a French publication had published pictures of Kate sunbathing topless on a private holiday with her husband in France. The story went nuclear, with the phones buzzing between London and Kuala Lumpur all through the night.
-Prince William with Nicole Kidman in Los Angeles during the North America tour in 2011
The next morning, William and Kate were visiting the As Syakirin Mosque and they went through the motions, charm personified. But it was at a tea party at the British High Commissioner’s residence later where I really saw the effect the incident had had on the pair.
Kate was cool as a cucumber, not the slightest hint that anything was wrong as she went round the room. William was the total opposite. Tired, angry, glowering, he could barely conceal his fury.
Later on the trip there was a drinks reception in the Solomon Islands. We were all under strict instruction not to mention the incident but, truthfully, just felt it would be dishonest not to address the elephant in the room. ‘I’m really sorry about what’s happened,’ I said when William moved in my direction.
‘I spoke to my husband about it and he said if he were in your shoes he couldn’t be held responsible for what he would do if he got his hands on those photographers.’ William smiled. It was strained, but not unfriendly. ‘Thank you,’ he said emotionally. ‘One day I will tell you how I really feel.’
An aide later told me the prince actually felt like he had let Kate and her family down. ‘I promised them I would protect her and I failed at the first hurdle,’ he said.
Despite moments such as this, William has also soared in confidence from the early tours. His solo trip to Israel and Palestine in 2018 was arguably the biggest test as a fledgling statesman he’d ever faced.
All trips, particularly ones of such a sensitive nature, are carefully calibrated, and the Queen had lent her grandson one of her most seasoned diplomats, Sir David Manning, to guide him. But even the best laid plans had the potential to go awry on a spectacular scale when William’s newly soled brogues hit the ground.
In fact he managed to negotiate the diplomatic minefield of the Middle East with skill and tact. Not only did he scrupulously divide his time between sensitive sites in Jerusalem which are Holy to the three Abrahamic faiths, but when Israeli President Rivlin asked him to convey a message of peace to President Abbas of Palestine, William carefully expressed his own hopes for peace in the region that pleased everyone and offended no one.
As he left, the British embassy tweeted, ‘Until we meet again, Prince Charming.’ But on our RAF Voyager plane trip home you could see his shoulders sink with relief.
Since the birth of Prince Louis in 2018, the way the couple have approached their tours has definitely changed. When we went to Pakistan the following year, the plane left after school drop-off on Monday and returned five days later, in time for them to put the children to bed.
An aide told me this was likely to become more the norm, although they did not rule out taking the children on short trips during the school holidays. For William and Kate, the business of state and the business of family will always go hand in hand.
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