For Trooping the Colour in June this year, 44 members of the royal family filed onto the Buckingham Palace balcony, to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday (her real one is April 21).
There, smack bang in the middle was Her Majesty, resplendent in pale pink, offering an occasional smile. Start moving outwards in either direction and there are the usual familiar faces – the Cambridges, the Sussexes, the Wessexes – but before long, you are staring at a cheerful gaggle of minor members of the family even a devoted monarchist would have trouble identifying. For example, you know who Lord Nicholas Windsor, Zenouska Mowatt or Lady Rose Gilman are?
And that right there, captured in a lovely picture of dozens of people in lovely hats and lovely morning suits is one of the central problems plaguing the royal family: Its size.
Prince Charles has long set his sights on changing this image of the royal family as a bloated beast, an institution stuffed with numerous minor hangers-on.
For nearly a decade now, the Prince of Wales has let it be known that once he is King he plans to usher in a new, slimmed down version of the monarchy. Long gone will be scenes like this one, of the Buckingham Palace balcony stuffed with a throng of unknown Windsors.
Instead, the focus will be on the monarch and those in the direct line of succession.
And that is very bad news for Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
While initially Charles’ new ’n improved royal family will include the Sussexes, that is only for a finite time. During his reign, himself, the Duchess of Cornwall and his sons and their families will be the focus.
However, that will shift in the coming years as the Cambridge children, especially Prince George, grow up when the focus will increasingly shift to them. Inexorably, the lens will zoom in more and more on the Cambridge family, pushing the Sussexes inch-by-inch out of the frame.
This might all seem very far away but Prince George turned six this year, meaning that in just over a decade he will be an adult. While we don’t know exactly when, his entry into adulthood will likely trigger the tipping point at which the relevance of Harry and his family to the royal narrative will start to erode.
To be clear, none of this will be a reflection of the Sussexes’ popularity or public sentiment or how many Instagram followers they garner. This “slimmed down” strategy is about laser focusing the heft and might of the royal machine to only promote central members of the family and thus keep them firmly and positively lodged in the public consciousness.
It is about constantly promoting their charities and good works and the diplomatic missions of the King, Prince of Wales and later Prince George ahead of those of lower ranking members, lest they consume even an iota of public attention.
It is about minimising anything that might distract the public from focusing on the sovereign and his heirs and all of the jolly good work they are doing. (This strategy also has the benefit of presenting the royal family as a sleek, efficient institution rather than a colossus sucking up taxpayer dollars.)
What this will all practically translate into is who will get invited to state dinners, who will be tasked with representing the Crown internationally and who will front up to Trooping the Colour. And crucially – who won’t.
This has always, to some extent, been the unfortunate fate of “the spare”. To live a life of diminishing seniority and relevance to the monarchy. Lacking a formal role, they are essentially at a loose end, left to aimlessly forge an identity and place in the royal household for themselves.
Consider Prince Andrew who until the age of 22 was a heartbeat away from the Crown. These days he is eighth in the line of succession. Should Kate and/or Meghan have another child (or children), Andrew will be shoved a peg or two down the ladder again.
Until the arrival of wee Prince George in 2013, Harry was “the spare”, the man who would assume the throne if something tragic happened to his older brother. However, with a new heir firmly in place, Harry was basically sacked from his understudy role and shunted down a peg in the royal pecking order.
However, Charles’ new model of the monarchy will only make life for “the spare” even more difficult, with less official responsibility and less of a formal role, meaning Harry and Meghan face being increasingly sidelined in the future.
Their centrality and seniority, from an official royal family standpoint, will only dwindle in coming years out of sheer necessity as the Palace gears up to push George, Charlotte and Louis into the spotlight.
We are clearly in a period of flux in terms of the image of the royal family. Most recently, we have had the humiliating ousting of Prince Andrew from official royal life.
While the Queen is still hale and hearty at 93, the end of her reign is a tragic but inescapable inevitability.
The coming decade, indeed decades, are going to see the public face of the monarchy change dramatically. There is every chance that one day – 10, 20 or 30 years from now – when the royal family gathers on the Buckingham Palace balcony the Sussexes simply won’t be there.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading titles.