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ROBERT HARDMAN: Harry and Meghan are just hell-bent on finding offence everywhere

Apparently, it was this year’s Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey that was the final straw for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

According to the authors of Finding Freedom: ‘After the service, Meghan flew back to Canada to return to Archie. ‘Meg just wanted to get home,’ said a friend, noting that the Duchess was emotionally bruised and exhausted. ‘At that point she couldn’t imagine wanting to set a foot back into anything royal again.’ ‘

Really? I was covering that event at the Abbey in March — and that is not my recollection at all.

I shall come back to the intriguing differences between the event as it is described in the book and what I saw with my own eyes on the day.

But, to me, the episode illustrates perfectly the way in which Harry and Meghan seem hell-bent on taking offence in every situation.

Here we have a book which echoes one of the great liberation narratives of modern times, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom.

Yet Finding Freedom is a struggle against protocol and seating plans. It is based on the perceived unfairness of a pecking order which has governed — and preserved — the monarchy for 1,000 years.

Yes, the rules are arcane and imperfect. It can be frustrating for those destined to a life of slow relegation. History and literature thrive on tales of intrigues at Court — from scheming courtiers in Shakespeare to the ‘men in suits’ in The Crown.

However, in the case of Harry and Meghan, the ‘men in suits’ went out of their way to make Project Sussex work — and many of them happened to be in skirts.

Pre-marriage, when Harry wanted to break with convention and bring Meghan to stay for Christmas at Sandringham, or indeed the 2018 Commonwealth service, officials made it happen.

Knowing that the couple would need top-class advice, the Queen persuaded one of her ablest and most respected former private secretaries, Samantha Cohen, to head up the Sussexes’ new office.

This book takes potshots at the Palace ‘old guard’, painting them as untrustworthy ‘vipers’.

Like any institution, the Palace has its share of infighting and jostling for position.

It must, at times, have been frustrating for a talented, up-at-dawn self-starter like the Duchess to find serried ranks of plodders telling her why things could not be done the way she wanted.

Prince Philip found it equally irksome when his wife became Queen in 1952. As a cousin put it: ‘They were beastly to him.’ Yet, he worked with the system to change it.

No one was ‘beastly’ to Harry and Meghan.

Yes, there were tensions when the couple picked fights with the system. For example, Harry’s 2016 statement slamming the media in the middle of the Prince of Wales’s tour of the Gulf caused dismay — but not just at the Palace.

The point of a royal tour is to promote the UK. Harry might have regarded his own situation as more important. Yet the real discourtesy was not to Prince Charles but to the Foreign Office which organises these diplomatic missions.

Similarly, the couple spent months planning their Sussex Royal website without consulting the Palace and government officials who are responsible for patrolling use of the word ‘royal’, under laws going back to the 19th century.

These staff were not being ‘vipers’. They were doing their job.

As for that ‘bruising’ Commonwealth Day service: you don’t have to buy Finding Freedom to make up your mind. It’s all on the internet.

If Harry had a slightly wistful look about him at times, it was to be expected. He had been attending state occasions at the Abbey since childhood, most notably that heartbreaking farewell to his mother in 1997. Now, here he was bowing out of royal life. Of course, he looked pensive.

The Duchess, however, was beaming.

Yet according to the book, she was deeply wounded by the ‘machinations’ of officials who ensured that, unlike ‘previous years’, the couple had been excluded from the royal procession whereas the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had not. 

In fact, the Sussexes had been part of the procession just once — in 2019. 

The event is organised not by the Palace but by the Royal Commonwealth Society who like to change the running order every year.

In 2020, the organisers put the Cambridges in the procession but not the Sussexes. Harry and Meghan were not happy but nor, for that matter, were Palace officials or William and Kate, who could see how it might look.

In order to avert ‘Harry and Meghan snubbed’ headlines, the Cambridges agreed to miss the procession, too.

Yet this book persists with the ‘snub’ narrative: ‘If looks were anything to go by, the Cambridges were unhappy with the decision.

‘While Harry and Meghan both greeted William and Kate with smiles, the Cambridges showed little response . . . For the minutes before the Queen’s arrival, William and Kate sat with their backs to the couple, only turning around to chat with Prince Edward and Sophie.’

All I can suggest is that you view this ‘snub’ with your own eyes. Kate was sitting in front of Meghan and at the other end of the row. With 2,000 Abbey guests, live BBC1 cameras and the media nearby, it was hardly the moment for the Duchess of Cambridge to turn round and start yelling small talk.

The Sussexes might want to paint all of this as a battle between a progressive force for good versus mean, fuddy-duddy jobsworths. At times, they may have a point. But the overarching theme of this book, thus far, is not injustice. It is peevishness.

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