How much longer will the queen go on?
The death of Prince Philip has suddenly given urgency to that question and, depending on which way the answer goes, the whole future of the monarchy could be in question.
Elizabeth will turn 95 on April 21. This was always going to be a celebrated milestone in the nearly 70 years of her reign—and a time to decide whether or not to step down.
For months there has been speculation that the queen might choose this moment to invoke the Regency Act, under which Prince Charles would take the throne as Prince Regent, becoming king on her death.
The queen has always said she would carry on until she felt unable to carry out the duties. For a woman of her age, she is in robust health, physically still independent and still riding horses. She alone will make the decision. But it doesn’t seem likely.
There are at least three reasons: the British public’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea of King Charles III (a new poll showed only 27 percent in favor of him succeeding his mother versus 47 percent in favor of Prince William); the toxic fallout from Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey and the unresolved issues of how Buckingham Palace is dealing with the lack of diversity in its ranks; and Prince Andrew’s entanglement in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
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The seasoned and well-informed royal biographer, Robert Lacey, told The Daily Beast that he believes that the queen will “go on to the very end.”
As the author of the best-selling Battle of Brothers, a clear-sighted take on the relationship of William and Harry, Lacey believes that Harry’s portrait of his father as delivered in the Oprah Winfrey interview, as distant and unsympathetic, has “created a bond between Charles and William that was not there before.”
As a result, he adds, “William will have nothing to do with calls for Charles to step aside.” (Thereby putting William in his place.)
Prince Philip’s death has removed not just her husband of 73 years but the queen’s closest counsel.
One source with knowledge of the internal dynamics of the royal family believes that the person most likely to succeed Philip as the monarch’s closest confidante and counsel is her daughter, Anne, the Princess Royal.
More so than any of the three sons, Anne has emerged in recent years as the one with views most aligned with those of her father, the source says. She is assertive in her judgments of people, she is wary of courtiers who have bungled the Harry and Meghan saga, and she believes that the popularity and security of the monarchy are so dependent on her mother’s standing that handing over to Charles at this moment would be needlessly risky.
For one thing, there are rumblings from afar that his accession would power up republican feelings in parts of the British Commonwealth, particularly in Australia, where the queen is adored but Charles is looked upon as a relic from another century.
William, in contrast, offers the hope of a transformational generational change—and what begins far from the home shores could easily inspire similar feelings in Britain, particularly among those under the age of 30, who, according to the polling, are more questioning of the monarchy’s continued relevance.
The problem is that the queen has set a standard that Charles simply cannot match. It became clear to me after two years of research for my book, The Last Queen, that Elizabeth II has completely mastered and inhabited the role of monarch on her own strict terms.
Since she came to the throne in 1952 she has managed to remain frustratingly inscrutable, absolutely the most unknowable famous person in the world. This approach to the job was inherited from her father and his own scrupulous sense of duty. The queen has carefully concealed the two things that are normally essential to judging character: her beliefs and her feelings. To this day her political beliefs are unknown and her personal feelings and allegiances, even in the midst of a family feud like “Megxit,” are left entirely to speculation.
How different it is with Charles. From his strange yearning to be reborn as a tampon, as he relayed it in a phone call to Camilla, to his attempts to advise government ministers on policy, he has revealed more of himself than we ever wanted to know.
To have three out of the four of her children’s first marriages end in divorce is a level of failure that must have caused Elizabeth and Philip great pain. There is no doubt, either, that the first decade of the marriage was tough on her. Coming to the throne at the age of 25 she had to learn on the job.
To the stress of this was added Philip’s visible frustrations at passing from a life of a roaming alpha male to the constraints on personal freedom of life in the glass cage. It was always going to take a while to tame the beast within him but eventually, as he matured and the queen established herself as beyond reproach as monarch, the marriage provided mutual solace and dependency.
This twilight intimacy came to a poignant peak in the middle of the pandemic last summer when, as part of quarantine measures, the queen and Philip spent time together in the decidedly non-palatial setting of Wood Farm, on the Sandringham royal estate. They were able to return to a simpler regime that reminded them of the few years they had together before she became queen.
Now, alone, the queen must face some of the toughest decisions of her reign.