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LONDON — When Queen Elizabeth reaches her final resting place, Andrew Parker will be at her side.
Tradition dictates that onlookers will see Parker, bearer of the ancient royal title Lord Chamberlain, symbolically break his staff of office over the grave of the deceased monarch immediately before her burial. It is a ceremonial gesture dating back centuries, last performed more than 70 years ago when the Earl of Clarendon broke his staff over the grave of George VI.
Parker, however, is cut from a very different cloth to aristocratic predecessors such as Willie Peel, a hereditary peer in the House of Lords and the great-great-grandson of the 19th-century prime minister, Robert Peel.
For the current Lord Chamberlain is better known — in Westminster circles, at least — as the former head of Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, MI5.
To the untrained eye, Parker’s switch from senior spy chief to head of the royal household — overseeing a monarch’s ceremonial duties and acting as their political linkman with the House of Lords — might seem a little strange.
But within a British establishment still characterized by the close — and often still secretive — links between the grand institutions of power dotted through central London — Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and beyond — his appointment makes perfect sense.
“He knows his way around the state institutions, and how it works,” one Cabinet minister who has worked closely with Parker, said. “That is going to be vital during what could potentially be a difficult transition.”
Whether it was by design or serendipity — accounts vary — Parker’s appointment in 2021, a year after he stood down as Britain’s top domestic spy chief, and weeks after he entered the House of Lords as a life peer, is almost universally viewed by those close to the royal family, and at the most senior levels of government, as a shrewd one.
Crucially, figures familiar with his appointment say King Charles III took a keen interest in the appointment, at a time when the queen’s health was deteriorating and transition plans were starting to be put in train.
Though in practice it is not a given he will be reappointed by the king, senior figures believe it would be a shrewd move to maintain continuity in the role.
Man for a crisis
Relatively young for the role at 60 years old, Parker grew up in Newcastle, where he is now also a visiting professor at Northumbria Law School. He was a natural sciences graduate from Cambridge and toiled his way up the secret service career ladder over more than three decades.
Those who have encountered Parker during his 37 years in the security service point out he has been at the apex of decision-making at other times of national crisis — often more harrowing and shocking than the passing of a monarch.
The murders of British soldier Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists in the London suburb of Woolwich and of Labour MP Jo Cox by a white nationalist both happened while he was in a senior position in the British secret service, as did the Westminster, London Bridge and Manchester Arena terror attacks.
“He is a safe pair of hands in a crisis,” one former government aide, who saw him operate in the immediate aftermath of an attack, said.
He is not easily flustered, he is good at providing clarity and at sticking to the facts under moments of stress — all vital attributes at a time when the public needs reassurance, the aide added.
“These are skills that will be transferable to his job in the royal household,” they said.
Power of being seen
While as discreet as would be expected of a man who has held such powerful roles, Parker understands the power of being seen. He was the first director of the intelligence services to make a speech on-camera, and to give a live broadcast interview.
And while leading the intelligence services he constantly advocated for MI5’s evolution and innovation — modernizing traits which could be crucial for the royal family as it enters its next phase.
Parker’s arrival at Buckingham Palace in April 2021 came at a time of crisis for the royals — still dealing with the fall-out of Prince Harry’s move to the U.S. and the scandal enveloping Prince Andrew. And it followed the departure of two long-serving senior courtiers to Queen Elizabeth.
Andrew Ford, who had been the Queen’s Comptroller for 12 years, responsible for running the Lord Chamberlain’s Office — a department that is crucial in protocol, state visits, investitures, garden parties, the State Opening of Parliament, royal weddings and funerals, retired in 2018.
The previous year Christopher Geidt, who was private secretary to Queen Elizabeth for a decade until 2017, was widely reported to have been forced out after falling out with Clarence House, Prince Charles’ household. Geidt moved into Whitehall, to become the prime minister’s chief adviser on ethics — before quitting that role last year.
Establishment revolving door
Indeed, Parker is just one of a recent clique of senior figures who have switched in and out of palace and government roles in what one former aide describes as the “revolving door” of the British establishment.
Simon Case, who is one of the prime minister’s key advisers as Cabinet secretary, was previously press secretary to Prince William, and was accused of alienating Harry and Markle while in the role.
Samantha Cohen, until recently Boris Johnson’s director of office at 10 Downing Street, was said to be a protege of Geidt at Buckingham Palace, and was brought into No. 10 in a vain attempt to bring order in the wake of the Partygate scandal.
Others have joined Parker in moving the other way. Jean-Christophe Gray, a former Treasury and Downing Street spokesman under David Cameron, took up a post as private secretary and head of household to Prince William at Kensington Palace last year.
Nice work if you can get it
Parker’s official role is largely organizational and ceremonial — his formal duties include chairing a monthly meeting of all the royal household’s heads of department, and providing a weekly update on activities.
The job is non-executive and part-time — although is said to come with a not-insubstantial £90,000-a-year salary — and he also finds time to serve as an independent non-executive director at Babcock, the defense and security behemoth.
But few doubt his counsel will be crucial in the days and weeks ahead.
The position of Lord Chamberlain has been less political than it was in the distant past, but observers say the new king would do well to make use of his talents.
“He is not a man who fizzes a room when he comes in to talk about things, but is always absolutely clear-sighted and headed,” a former Cabinet minister said.
“He is a quiet, very clever and dedicated public servant.”
A former MP who scrutinized Parker during his time as head of MI5 added: “Courtiers are the royal family’s civil servants — whatever contacts they have tend to be discreet and behind the scenes.
“Although he could be pretty blunt, he was politically sensitive as well. He is going to have to help be the bridge between the old and the new regime.”