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Expect to see more of Prince William after King Charles’ cancer diagnosis

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LONDON — Prince William returned to front-line royal duties on Wednesday for the first time since his father’s shocking cancer diagnosis and his wife’s abdominal surgery.

William began his working day in a military uniform draped in gold braid, handing out honors and medals at a ceremony at Windsor Castle. Later in the evening, William will attend a gala dinner in London as patron of the London Air Ambulance.

Normal stuff in a normal royal diary. But it has taken on new significance with William, 41, expected to take on more royal responsibilities as King Charles III steps back from public appearances. As next in line to the throne, William is now the most senior royal to represent the monarchy at official events.

Lee Thompson, a spokesman for the Prince and Princess of Wales, told The Washington Post that William “may step in for His Majesty,” although “nothing is scheduled currently.” Kensington Palace, William’s office, and Buckingham Palace, the king’s office, are “in constant communication, and should the need arise appropriate arrangements will be made.”

U.K. worries about King Charles’s cancer as Prince Harry flies home

The Firm — as the royals and those in the know call the institution — is not operating at full strength. William, himself, temporarily cleared his calendar to look after his wife, Catherine, who spent nearly two weeks in a hospital and is recovering from abdominal surgery. She is not expected to return to work before Easter. Charles will continue with his constitutional duties and behind-the-scenes work, but he has suspended public engagements.

Public-facing work is at the core of what the British royals do, necessary for demonstrating stability and selling the brand. Working royals spend time visiting charities, shaking hands, cutting ribbons, unveiling plaques.

“To remain popular and relevant, the monarchy can’t just stay resident in Buckingham Palace, or Clarence House,” said Charles Ansen, a former press secretary of Queen Elizabeth II. “They are politically neutral, but they encourage good values, and face-to-face interaction is very important,” he said, adding that when a royal enters a room at a charity event, there’s a kind of “electricity.”

Topping the list for most industrious royal is the king’s sister Anne, the Princess Royal, who clocked 457 engagements in 2023 — beating out her brother Charles’s 425, and giving her one of the highest royal approval ratings in the land.

The palace is keen to stress stability, so the show must go on.

Anne has shown no signs of slowing down. On Tuesday, she carried out an investiture at Windsor Castle before hustling over to Nottingham to visit a clothing manufacturer known for its scarves and shawls. On Wednesday she visited a training center for military bomb disposal units. Prince Edward and wife Sophie, the king’s brother and sister-in-law, will also keep reporting in for royal duties. Queen Camilla will help to hold down the fort with a full program of official engagements.

The king’s other brother, Prince Andrew, remains in the royal wilderness over his association with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. An upcoming Netflix movie on his car-crash interview with BBC’s Newsnight suggests that may not change anytime soon.

Then of course there is Prince Harry, whose very high-profile step back from royal duties in 2020 and subsequent apparent feud with the family continues to dominate the royal tabloid press coverage. After flying in Tuesday to see his father, he was reported to be heading back to California.

Ansen said that going forward, “more will be expected of William,” but other senior royals will also step up. “They will have to spread out the diary, prioritize events, things can be done on a different time-scale, maybe not get it done in one year, maybe two. The monarchy is very pragmatic.”

Things could change more dramatically if Charles can no longer fulfill his constitutional duties. While the British monarchy is largely ceremonial, the king does have many official duties, such as appointing prime ministers, signing legislation, hosting visiting prime ministers and presidents, and representing the country abroad.

If he became incapacitated, then parliament could decide to transfer his powers to William, who would become a “regent.”

The Regency Act of 1937 states that the person who can act on behalf of the monarch must be an adult, a British subject, and living in Britain. Luckily, there’s more guidance as well. The act says that the person must also be the next in the line of succession to the crown.

A regency would be a drastic option — Britain has not had a prince regent for over a century. The king would technically still be head of state, but the regent would act on behalf of the king. There are some limits on a regent’s powers. For instance, the regent cannot give a thumbs-up to a piece of legislation that changed the order of succession to the throne. Constitutional experts said that a prince regent wouldn’t necessarily be the regent in the other 14 countries where Charles is king.

But Britain is a long, long way from considering a regency, which is almost a dirty word here, conjuring up images of the dark days of “mad” King George III.

There are shorter-term options if the king is temporarily unable to act as head of state. A “counsellor of state,” could be appointed as a stand-in for the king, with the king still needing to approve some core constitutional functions. The current counsellors of state are Camilla, William, Anne and Edward.

The palace, and the British government, have made it clear that are no plans in the works for this at the moment. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the king’s cancer had been “caught early” and that he is in regular contact with Charles.

For now, it seems to be a wait-and-see approach. But there are some big events in the 2024 royal diary, including royal tours by the king and queen to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, that may need to reassessed.

There is modern precedent for the heir to the throne to take on bigger roles. When Queen Elizabeth II wasn’t well in her final months, Charles began deputizing for her.

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