Royal family: As Queen Elizabeth winds down, will her successors measure up?

The Windsors must prepare for the exit of an ‘icon of steadiness’ and an uncertain future

Britain's Queen Elizabeth appeared in public on Tuesday for the first time since she tested positive for coronavirus last month, holding virtual audiences with ambassadors in Buckingham Palace from Windsor Castle, 20 miles away, where the 95-year-old monarch now spends almost all her time.

The ambassadors laid their credentials on a small round table in front of a video screen, propped up on a highly polished chest of drawers.

"She's a sort of castle-bound monarch, isn't she? And that was fine during Covid, and she rather skilfully mastered the art of being a sort of Zoom queen. But that is harder to maintain as we come out of Covid and there's more expectation of people meeting face to face," says former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt.

The queen, who spent a night in hospital last October after abruptly cancelling a visit to Northern Ireland, has become visibly frail in recent months and now walks using a stick. She is due to attend the Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey on March 14th and a memorial service for the incoming ambassadors of Andorra and Chad.

The queen pulled out of the Cop26 event in Glasgow and the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph last November, and it is still far from certain that she will attend either of this month’s planned events.

“The [royal family’s] greatest challenge is that on one level, it is utterly ridiculous that we’re talking about a 95-year-old and expecting them to start skipping and doing cartwheels down the street. We all know 95-year-olds and we’d expect them to be sitting in a chair with their feet up, watching the racing and drinking a cup of Horlicks,” says Hunt.

“But for them, because abdication is just a no-no, the minute they start to say she is putting her feet up, then the public question will be: who is the head of state? And that’s a whole world one gets the sense they really don’t want to enter into, either counsellors of state temporarily or, indeed, a prince regent more permanently.”

Counsellors of state, who are authorised to carry out most of the sovereign’s duties, are appointed from the four adults next in succession. They are Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry and Prince Andrew.

On Tuesday, while the queen was performing her duties by video link, Charles was in Essex to confer city status on Southend-on-Sea, whose local MP, David Amess, was murdered last October. William was in Torfaen, Wales, marking St David's Day by baking Welsh cakes with members of a youth club.

The others

The other two counsellors of state were not, of course, performing royal duties. Neither Andrew nor Harry will ever be seen in such a role again. The queen stripped Andrew of all his remaining royal affiliations and patronages in January, shortly before he made an out-of-court settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who claimed she was sex trafficked to him as a minor by Jeffrey Epstein.

Andrew, who resigned from all public roles almost two years ago after a disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis on BBC’s Newsnight, retains the title of His Royal Highness in theory but will only be allowed to use it on his tombstone.

“Irrespective of his guilt or innocence, the core of it is about his catastrophic failures of judgment over many years. And in that context, you then also have to look at whether there was a failure of judgment in those around him, not just within the monarchy but also within successive British governments,” says Hunt.

“The evidence is clearly there that it was questionable whether or not he should have been a trade ambassador for the British government, but no one stopped him, even though they would have had warnings – sort of – in private memos and from various ambassadors.”

Harry is in California with his wife, Meghan Markle, and their two children, estranged from his family and in a perpetual state of war with the British press. His forthcoming memoir is expected to offer further details of the royal family's treatment of Markle, who suggested in last year's interview with Oprah Winfrey  that she was the victim of racism.

They could have found a mechanism whereby Harry could have carried on. The fact that they didn't smacks of a level of cruelty

The British media is polarised about Harry and Meghan, with most of the tabloids characterising them as ungrateful, entitled and indifferent to the anguish their departure has caused the queen. But Hunt believes that the royal family could have done more to accommodate them and that the institution fails to understand what an asset they lost in Markle.

“She was able to give a speech in South Africa about being a woman of colour who entered an institution that, to survive and prosper, needs to continue being the head of state in several other realms which are Commonwealth countries, and it failed to do enough to keep her within the institution,” he says.

“I mean, it’s an institution that adjusts and makes things up as it goes along. There’s a flag up, there’s a flag down. They can adjust their history when they need to. They’ve managed to find a mechanism whereby [civilian] Prince Edward can attend the Cenotaph wearing a military uniform. They could have found a mechanism whereby Harry could have carried on. The fact that they didn’t smacks of a level of cruelty.”

Charles’ scandal

Charles is the driving force within the family now but he too is in the grip of a scandal and could be questioned by the police over allegations that donors to his charities were promised honours. Michael Fawcett, a former valet Charles once described as indispensable, has resigned from the Prince's Foundation, and Scotland Yard is investigating claims that Fawcett fixed an honour for a Saudi tycoon.

Charles was joined in Southend by his wife, Camilla, and because the prince never eats lunch, she sat alone as she enjoyed cod and chips with tartar sauce and garnished with a gherkin, known locally as a wally. The queen said last month that Camilla should be known as queen consort when Charles ascends the throne, clearing up one of the biggest questions that was likely to arise when he becomes king.

Her crucial advantage has been that we don't know what she thinks. She could go to bed whistling the tune to the Red Flag

The Commonwealth has already agreed that he will succeed his mother as its leader, although there is no guarantee that William will take over the role from him. But Hunt believes the queen's death will have a greater emotional impact on Britain than the death of Princess Diana, and that Charles' public views on many issues could complicate his reign.

“I think it will be very different because her crucial advantage has been that we don’t know what she thinks. She could go to bed whistling the tune to the Red Flag, although we’re pretty confident she doesn’t. But we don’t actually know, and that’s her great saving grace. Whereas with Charles, we know of all the many and varied issues on which he has strong opinions and that will be a potential challenge for future governments,” he says.

“When you strip away what they are about, the crux of it is this quite challenging concept of being a unifying figure and being a unifying figure in a nation that has become increasingly diverse. On paper, it’s unbelievably challenging. But she has managed to do that. She has managed to become this sort of constant. An icon of steadiness. And she also personally has managed to be untainted by scandal, although there’s plenty of scandal around her.

“When you take all those factors together, I think that is why it will be a very significant moment when it happens.”

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