When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle said they wanted to step back from their roles as senior royals, they struck an agreement with Buckingham Palace to allow them to move on.
The deal with the Queen included a “get-out” clause, the option to review the system in 12 months’ time, which could allow them back into the fold if they so wish.
Wednesday 30 September marks the halfway mark of that review period and much has changed.
This time last year, Harry, Meghan and baby Archie were on a royal tour in southern Africa, a documentary of which revealed some of their frustrations and upset at the way their lives were panning out.
Now, despite the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, Harry and Meghan have moved quickly to establish financial independence, a north American base and a new approach to the press.
They have signed a multi-million dollar, multi-year deal with Netflix, are planning to set up a production company and live in a new home which they bought together.
They have also relished being able to act quickly to protect their family from paparazzi. No longer bound by ‘never complain, never explain’, the couple have a number of court cases ongoing and waste no time issuing legal warnings if their privacy is encroached.
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So could they ever come back to the royal fold?
When Harry and Meghan first moved to Los Angeles, at the height of the pandemic, they kept themselves to themselves. They were photographed on a few occasions, and were spotted carrying out voluntary work, but they mothballed their Instagram account and laid low.
They have, however, become more vocal in recent months. While they have stayed away from restarting their SussexRoyal account with a new name, or creating new social media accounts, they have made appearances online at virtual events and in the last week, on television for Time 100 and even America’s Got Talent.
As Meghan got involved in the drive to get voters to the polling stations in November, working alongside lifetime campaigner Gloria Steinem, Harry initially stayed out of politics.
But Buckingham Palace had to distance itself after the prince decided to join in the election conversation, urging people to “reject hate speech” and disclosing that he had never voted.
His admission that in “this election” he would not be able to vote even led to questions about whether he would be applying for US citizenship.
Writing in The Telegraph, associate editor and royal expert Camilla Tominey said: “It’s hard to see any way back into the Royal family now – although with a multibillion pound Netflix deal in their back pockets, I don’t think anyone is expecting the couple to be rushing back to London when the one-year Megxit transition period ends.”
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On their Royal Rota podcast, ITV’s Chris Ship and Lizzie Roberts discussed the changes the couple had made.
Ship said: “I suppose what they’re kind of trying to do is deny any justification for any media intrusion. They’re not taking taxpayers’ money, they’re not working members of the Royal Family, they’ve set up their own business, they are working with Netflix and taking money from them. There is no justification to hover cameras over their house and try and take pictures of Archie, not that there ever was to be fair.”
He added: “A lot of the commentary around this was that this couldn’t be a clearer sign that they are done, cut ties with their lives as working members of the Royal Family.”
Roberts added the “ties have been well and truly severed”.
Long before the Netflix deal and the new home, there was already speculation the couple would not be coming back to royal work.
Speaking to US Weekly in May, the Viscountess Hitchingbrooke, another American who married into the Royal Family, said of their move: “You kind of think, I’m not going to be King, so if I have a choice between happiness and duty, I think I’m going to choose happiness. And that’s what they decided to do. I think good on them.”
She added: “I don’t think that they do want to come back. I think that they’re at a point of no return. I think they’re like, ‘This is where we’re going to make home’.”
One of the reasons the couple wanted to step back as senior royals was because of the method of press reporting on events they attended - the Royal Rota. The system allows a select list of journalists greater access to events and information is shared with others if they can’t attend.
But Harry and Meghan wanted to broaden the list of media organisations they worked with - something which was reportedly refused.
They have now started to diversify who they work with, with Meghan writing in Elle, and their Netflix news emerging via the New York Times.
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In April, Insider speculated that the couple would require a continuation of that diversity if they were to return to royal duties.
Marlene Koenig, History Extra royal expert, said: “I think Meghan found her voice being muted as a working royal so now she will have more opportunity to do good on her’s and Harry's terms.”
But on reaction if they did return to the royal fold, Koenig said the family would welcome them back with open arms, but “the media would be without mercy”.
Meghan’s court battle with the Mail On Sunday and MailOnline could further complicate matters, though she is far from the first royal to sue the press.
However, her case has got much further than most do, and she is going to have to hand over six months worth of communications, including texts and emails, to the High Court ahead of full trial next year.
What emerges from that case remains to be seen of course, but it could be an undesirable intrusion if they are to seek to return to their previous life.
In January, the statement from the Queen regarding the couple stepping back said: “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family.”
With their home in Windsor, Frogmore Cottage, just a couple of miles from the Queen’s favoured home and weekend retreat, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be close enough for afternoon tea if there’s an invitation from Her Majesty.
But as their Netflix deal looks long term, and with a mortgage on a new Californian property, those visits are likely to only ever be a holiday from their new real life.