LONDON — Forget the talk of dire spending cuts and grim economic times. Who needs doom and gloom when royal confetti is in the air?
Prince William and Kate Middleton, once the world's most talked-about college sweethearts, ended years of speculation by announcing their engagement Tuesday. The second-in-line to the British throne and his longtime girlfriend, both 28, intend to get married next year; exact date (sometime in the spring or summer), venue (big) and guest list (monstrous) all TBA.
With no royal or aristocratic pedigree, Middleton will become the first commoner in centuries to marry a presumptive heir to the throne. Her plebeian background has been mercilessly picked over and ridiculed by Britain's snobbish tabloids, here in a land where many still turn up their noses at those who speak with the wrong accent, say "toilet" instead of "loo" or live in a house with an address number rather than a name.
Yet it was a grateful nation that received the news, happy for any distraction from depressing headlines about government cutbacks and painful retrenchment. Months of excited gossip over a possible royal wedding will now be replaced by months of excited gossip over wedding preparations, plus ceaseless scrutiny of Middleton's fashion choices and general overuse of the description "fairy tale."
The wedding is likely to be the most anticipated royal event in Britain since William's parents, Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, married in 1981. That occasion too was a mood-lifter for a country mired in recession, though royal watchers said that William's nuptials will probably be less lavish, in a nod to the troubled state of Britain's public finances.
The official announcement of the engagement came from Charles, who pronounced himself thrilled that his elder son had "sought the permission of Miss Middleton's father" to marry his daughter. Other members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II, also issued statements expressing their delight.
British Prime Minister David Cameron interrupted a Cabinet meeting to tell his colleagues the news, which he said sparked "a great cheer" around the table, though whether it was out of joy for the couple or for the opportunity to divert public attention from the government's sweeping austerity program was unclear.
The prince and his fiancee met about a decade ago as classmates at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh. Both studied art history; as upperclassmen, the two shared a house with some friends.
Their budding relationship was closely watched by the media, despite pleas for privacy from the palace. In 2007, the couple underwent a brief but much-publicized split, with some courtiers sniffing that Middleton and her family had probably proved too gauche for the royal household.
After they reconciled, the tabloids dubbed Middleton "Waity Katie," needling her for her patience in hoping for a proposal. On Tuesday, William fended off questions as to why he had waited so long.
"I ... didn't realize it was a race. Otherwise I'd have been a lot quicker," he joked, adding, "The timing is right."
"It just seemed a natural step for both of us," said Middleton, who works part time as a buyer for a chain of fashion stores.
On her finger flashed the famous sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring that belonged to Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. William said it was a way for his mother to be present.
He and Middleton became engaged last month while on vacation in Africa but kept the news under wraps, no small achievement in the scoop-hungry world of royal watchers. But observers were convinced that an announcement was in the offing when Middleton's parents were invited recently to a shooting party at the royal residence in Scotland.
Middleton's parents are entrepreneurs who run a successful mail-order party-supplies business from their home in the affluent county of Berkshire.
Her mother, Carole, has been especially sneered at in the press as a grasping social climber who once worked as a flight attendant and who was caught on camera chewing gum at William's graduation from military academy.
Royal watchers have noted that a wedding probably would take place before 2012, so as not to compete with the Summer Olympics in London and the celebration of the queen's diamond jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne.
The couple plan to live in northern Wales. William, whose low-key manner and resemblance to his mother have made him one of the most popular members of the royal family, will continue to serve in Britain's air force.
What lies ahead for Middleton, a striking brunette described as warm and down-to-earth, is life under a microscope and the difficulties of navigating palace intrigue.
"It's quite a daunting prospect. Hopefully I'll take it in my stride," she said. "William's a great teacher."