The future of The Queen: can the monarch ever rule in the same way again?

·15-min read
Queen graphic with arrows
Queen graphic with arrows
  • This is the first installment of The Future Of... a new weekly series which seeks to examine in depth what the next 5-10 years holds in a variety of different areas. Return to our website next Thursday at 8am for the next episode in the series.

The Queen’s reign is effectively over. It is a statement that would stun most royal watchers, especially given it comes just over two months since her stirring “We’ll meet again” speech to the nation. 

But it is the view of Princess Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton, who regards that speech as her ‘finest hour’. He also believes that the coronavirus crisis means the monarch will not be able to carry out royal engagements for the foreseeable future.

“It’s terribly sad but I can’t see how the Queen can resume her job” said Morton, 66. “The Covid-19 virus isn’t going away soon and will be with us for months if not years.

“It would be far too risky for the Queen to start meeting people on a regular basis. She has always loved getting out and meeting people but she can’t take the risk.

“How can she carry out investitures, meet ambassadors, do walkabouts and visit places without meeting people at close range? If she gets the bug it could be fatal and would put Prince Philip at risk as well.

“The brutal truth is that her reign is effectively over. Covid-19 has done more damage to the monarchy than Oliver Cromwell. 

“Corona has practically put Charles on the throne.”

Morton’s outburst follows reports that the 94-year-old Queen will have to absent herself from official duties for the longest period in her 68-year reign.

Forced to remain at Windsor Castle “indefinitely” and with her diary of engagements on hold, there can be no official duties or movements until the global pandemic’s threat clears.

Buckingham Palace will be closed to the public this summer, for the first time in 27 years and events such as Trooping the Colour, garden parties and the Order of the Garter service have already been cancelled. Princess Beatrice’s wedding has been postponed. Plans for a state visit from South Africa in October are up in the air.

With the Duke of Edinburgh due to turn 100 next June, and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee just 18 months away, there are major royal events on the horizon. In the meantime the House of Windsor has been reduced to Zoom calls.

What impact might Covid-19 have on the future of a Sovereign whose motto long been: “I need to be seen to be believed”?

Three crowns
Three crowns

According to Morton, whose 1992 book Diana Her True Story blew the lid off Charles and Diana’s failed marriage, it will be problematic for the monarchy that “the touchy-feely way of doing things created by Diana has been stopped in its tracks”.

Having become more ‘relatable’ in recent years, an institution which now has to appeal to the Instagram generation could be forced to return to the “days of white gloves”.

As Morton points out, this threatens to “make the Royals more remote”, just when it needs to endear itself to the public following the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to the US.

Some also fear that the Queen being out of the limelight for a lengthy period will reignite talk of a Prince Regency, where the Prince of Wales would effectively be monarch by proxy.

The prospect was first raised in 2014 when courtiers were revealed to have “dusted off the Regency Act” and examined the mechanism for Prince Charles to become regent in case the Queen's health fails her.

Britain's last regency was from 1811 to 1820, when George III's mental illness left him unable to carry out his duties. His son, the future George IV, was given his father's full powers under the Regency Act, and gave his name to Regent's Park and Regent Street in London.

It has been mooted that the Queen and her eldest son may come to a similar arrangement when she turns 95 next April. “Abdication” has been a dirty word in her vocabulary ever since her uncle Edward reneged on his duties and passed the Crown to her father, George VI.

‘Lilibet’, as she was known to her parents, is thought to still blame the 1936 abdication crisis on her dearest Papa’s premature death in 1952, which propelled her onto the throne at the age of 25.  

A year later she took her Coronation oath before God, and as a deeply religious woman it seems unlikely she would ever consider going back on that “solemn promise”.

All of which explains why she has repeatedly made it clear that she regards the sovereignty as a job for life, with no question of her stepping down.

But could that change in the post-Covid era?

The monarch has already scaled down her workload to make allowances for her age over the past five years, and no longer undertakes long-haul travel. 

Charles, in turn, has taken on more and more of her duties, including representing her at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings while the Duke of Cambridge now carries out investitures on his grandmother’s behalf.

The Queen’s prolonged absence from public life could help cement the argument for her son and grandson taking the rei(g)ns.

The trouble is, however, that very few people, if any, appear to be making the case for that - least of all HM or her heir.

Three crowns
Three crowns

Although Charles has been waiting his whole life to be King, no son wants to hurry along their own beloved mother’s demise. Similarly, with three children under six, and under pressure to step up in Harry and Meghan’s absence, William is in no rush to become the next Prince of Wales. That is a far more onerous role than being second-in-line to the throne.

If anything, the Sussexes’ departure has helped to strengthen the bond between the three generations of monarchy. They are described as acting “in lockstep” on major decisions like the Duke of York stepping back from royal life, and Harry and Meghan being stripped of their “Sussex Royal” branding.

Popular opinion also appears opposed to the idea of the Queen abdicating, although HM passing the baton to William was supported by 46 per cent of respondents to a BMG poll in January 2019.

As far as the British public is concerned, the attitude is very much: “Long may she reign over us,” with the Queen repeatedly topping the royal popularity polls. YouGov currently says 75 per cent of Brits have a “positive opinion” of HM.

According to author Phil Dampier, who has been covering the royal beat for more than 30 years, the fact that the monarchy has been “slimmed down” in recent years makes the visibility of the Queen’s future role more important than ever.

“I don’t think she’ll ever abdicate,” he says. “She’d only ever hand over power if she fell ill or infirm and she is in very good health for her age.

“In the absence of Harry and Meghan and also Prince Andrew, there is pressure on all the Royals, including the Queen, to fill the void.

“The current hiatus may well have given her time to recharge her batteries. There had been some talk of her handing over more responsibilities at 95 but I think the coronavirus crisis changes everything.

“You’ve seen the importance of her addresses during lockdown and the positive reaction to that which will make her think she’ll want to carry on for as long as possible.”

Behind palace gates there is certainly a sense that lockdown is seen as a temporary change in circumstances, rather than a catalyst for a complete overhaul.

Aides are at pains to point out that while the Queen might not be able to “meet and greet” at the moment, it remains business as usual when it comes to her red boxes, the leather-bound briefcases that carry her state papers. There are only two days a year when she does not delve into the contents - her birthday on April 21, and Christmas Day.

As well as holding regular telephone calls with the Prime Ministers and other British political figures, she also remains in “regular contact” with Commonwealth leaders. Last Thursday’s Court Circular revealed that she spoke with Arlene Foster, First minister of Northern Ireland and her deputy Michelle O’Neill from Windsor Castle. The daily diary of royal engagements is still pretty full, even though duties are being carried out remotely.

So like many people working from home, the Queen remains busy. As Dampier puts it: “She likes keeping occupied. She has always enjoyed her job. And it’s not as if she’s stopped doing it.”

Nor has her role been diminished during the outbreak.

Three crowns
Three crowns

If lockdown has demonstrated anything, it is the respect HM still commands after nearly seven decades on the throne. Her “We’ll Meet Again” speech on 5 April reaffirmed her role as Mother of the Nation, a beacon of stability and continuity.

In the run up to the speech, courtiers knew it was a question of “when not if” HM would address the nation. As has ever been the case with the Queen’s scarcely-spoken words, the timing was key.

The monarch doesn’t have to say much, or speak that often, to have an enormous impact. In fact it is precisely because she chooses her words so carefully that they carry such weight. Her speech was watched by 24 million people. That’s up there with Live Aid, albeit some were watching online or on catch up in April which was not possible in 1985.

As Britain emerges from this crisis, with all the economic fallout the recovery will inevitably bring, there is a sense that we will want and need continued reassurance from a trusted figure like the Queen, who transcends politics.

HM herself is under no illusion as to the importance of this aspect of her role. As the annual royal accounts state in black and white, the Queen is not just head of state but “head of nation”.

Published every year, the description of the “two distinct elements” comprising the Queen’s remit reads: “The Queen’s role as Head of Nation is as significant as Her role as Head of State, and can be divided into four key elements – unity and national identity, continuity and stability, achievement and success, and support of service.” It adds: “The Queen and the Monarchy are a stable fixture in many people’s lives.”

Would anyone really seek to change this carefully-balanced dynamic at a time when the future of Britain, and indeed the world, appears difficult enough to predict?

With a number of fields now converted to the idea of remote working, it is tempting to think the Royal Family might follow suit and look to reducing face-to-face interactions. This would miss the whole point of the institution.

Of course, the Royal family must be down with the digikids if the monarchy is to survive in the 21st century, but it is the physical presence of figures like the Queen - and the pomp and ceremony that goes with it, that often proves the biggest draw.

Similarly, the main attraction for members of the family is the chance to get out and about and meet people. There is no doubt the Queen will have missed the walkabouts when she gets the chance to shake hands and chat with the public. She once commented that she found it “strange” to be confronted by a sea of mobile phones on royal engagements, admitting: “I miss eye contact”.

The Queen looks at a mobile telephone - PAUL GROVER
The Queen looks at a mobile telephone - PAUL GROVER

She will have particularly missed military events. It speaks volumes that plans have even been put in place for a mini Trooping the Colour to take place on the Queen’s official birthday on June 13, with a Royal Salute from the military at Windsor Castle. They need not have bothered - that they did reiterates the high regard in which the Queen holds such traditions. The idea that she would want to stop carrying out engagements like meeting the changing commanders of regiments, for example, is unthinkable.

Similarly, it is via HM’s regular audiences with ambassadors and high commissioners that she gets to catch up on what is happening across her 16 Commonwealth realms. Anyone who has met the Queen usually comments on how well briefed she is. That is because she has made it a habit to keep her ear to the ground. She will certainly want one-on-one meetings to resume as soon as they possibly can.

Three crowns
Three crowns

There are no two ways about it - HM’s has always been a public facing role.

Having given Royal Ascot permission to take place behind closed doors this year, she is also no doubt relishing the idea of the summer season being restored in full in 2021.

While few would object to a pair of nonagenarians putting their feet up in such circumstances, HM and her husband of 72 years have never been the type to rest on their laurels. Although less active than he used to be following a spate of health problems, the Duke’s mantra has always been “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

He is understood to have spent recent weeks and months trawling through his paperwork and reading avidly. Even at 99, his thirst for knowledge remains undiminished.

If there is one consolation of lockdown for the Queen and her husband of 72 years it is that they have been reunited. Philip was staying at Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate while the Queen was down in London. The idea was that the Duke would give his wife the space she needed to get on with her job at Buckingham Palace (very much regarded as ‘the office’) while he enjoyed his retirement up in Norfolk. Some found it strange they weren’t spending much time together but being practically-minded people, they thought it was the best course of action. Now circumstances have conspired to thrust them back together and both will undoubtedly have benefitted from the company.

Ordinarily the royal ‘court’ would have moved from Windsor to London last month, but it will remain in Berkshire for the foreseeable future in accordance with the Government advice concerning “clinically vulnerable” over 75s.

Surrounded by 22 members of staff who are all locked down with the royal couple, the tight-knit set up has been dubbed HMS Bubble by Master of the Household Tony Johnstone-Burt.

The ex-naval officer has likened the operation to a long deployment at sea where sailors are separated from loved ones for months on end.

Yet unlike a planned voyage, no one knows quite when this journey will end.

Three crowns
Three crowns

Until she was photographed out riding in Windsor Great Park last week, the last time we saw the Queen was at the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9.

That HM was pictured atop Balmoral Fern, a 14-year-old fell pony is significant.

It was the palace’s way of showing the world that the Queen, like the rest of us, is trying to get back to normal.

Queen Elizabeth II rides Balmoral Fern, a 14-year-old Fell Pony, in Windsor Home Park over the weekend of May 30 - GETTY IMAGES
Queen Elizabeth II rides Balmoral Fern, a 14-year-old Fell Pony, in Windsor Home Park over the weekend of May 30 - GETTY IMAGES

Preliminary planning is already under way on the Duke’s 100th birthday next June, with “initial discussions” being held in advance of the Platinum Jubilee in 2022, marking the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s reign. While both projects may not be top priorities - that the household is looking forward shows that they are trying to look beyond this nightmare to a better, brighter future.

The royal household will do what it is always done - it will adapt. What has been interesting about royal life since March 23 is that the Royal family have managed to remain relevant despite the hardships suffered by their subjects.

At the beginning of all this, the Queen released a statement to a world “entering a period of great concern and uncertainty.”

Reminding us that our nation’s history “has been forged by people and communities coming together to work as one,” she added: “Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge. You can be assured that my family and I stand ready to play our part.” In living up to that promise, the Royal family appear to have saved themselves from their own internal crisis. 

Having endured a second annus horribilis last year which almost sparked a constitutional crisis, they are now at the forefront of efforts to lead the country out of an unprecedented national emergency. And it has all been done under the watchful eye of a nonagenarian grandmother whose appetite for public duty appears undiminished despite her advancing years.

For the Queen knows better than anyone that the monarchy has not survived for 1,000 years without turning challenges into opportunities.

  • Return to Telegraph.co.uk next Thursday, 18 June for the next installment of our The Future Of... series. It will be published at 8am BST

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