Project 70: will Prince Charles be on the throne by next year?
Next Sunday, the Prince of Wales will lay the wreath on behalf of the nation at the Cenotaph. It won’t be the first time: he performed this duty when the Queen was in Kenya in 1983. However, significantly, it will be the first time he has laid the wreath with Her Majesty present. The Queen will be watching from the Foreign Office balcony, at the side of her 96-year old husband who, having retired from public duties, will no longer be on the Whitehall tarmac and on parade. The change in protocol has excited enormous comment. During the summer a number of tabloids ran stories ran alleging the Queen had said to close friends that in three-and-a-half years’ time, when she is 95, she will “consider” giving up the Throne and allowing her eldest son and heir to take over. It was not clear whether Her Majesty had in mind a regency, where she would remain head of state but her heir would discharge her constitutional duties, or an abdication, where she would become an ex-Queen and her son would be crowned King. The Prince of Wales will be 69 two days after the Remembrance Sunday ceremony; no heir to the Throne has been older or waited so long. As his 70th year approaches, and the Queen moves through her nineties, it is natural that attention focuses on how he is preparing for monarchy, and how the transition between the two reigns will be effected. However, one reason, perhaps, why it is unclear what will take place is that there is no evidence Her Majesty is contemplating any such thing. While some things are changing; there is a steady winding-down of what the Queen does; and the Prince sees state papers (and has for years) and has learned statecraft, there is a wide gulf between sharing the load (as a nonagenarian must) and running up the white flag. The Queen continues to take Privy Council meetings, and it is her assent that brings parliamentary Bills into law. Several people who know her, and the Prince give the unanimous impression that beyond this, any idea that Her Majesty is building up to giving up the throne is baseless. His friends too say the caricature of him living in hope of his mother’s demise or abdication, could not be further from the truth. They describe him as serene in his marriage, rejoicing in his children and grandchildren and busily getting on with his job. The night before he leads the Act of Remembrance he will return from his current ten day tour of South-east Asia and India. Last week the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall were in Singapore, manifestly enjoying themselves and delighting in each other’s company while on duty. A friend who spent time with him recently described the Prince as “happier than I have seen him for years.” Those who know him well or work with him closely have noticed other changes. “As he gets older there are signs of a ‘life’s too short’ attitude,” says a friend. “He wants to concentrate on things he finds important and has less and less time for things he thinks aren’t.” He is determined that people will not look back on his long apprenticeship and think he achieved nothing. “Legacy is really important to him,” one who has worked for him says. “It means a lot to him that he can point to achievements. And there are aspects of his role, such as what he has done to inspire people to transform their communities, that get too little recognition.” Preparation for him to become King “has been going on since 1948”, another friend says. Inevitably, as Her Majesty gets older, the nature of that preparation becomes more intense. The transition at the Cenotaph is one example – though one courtier said it was not settled that this would be permanent, some in the Household believing that the Queen will lay the wreath next year, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. Also next year, however, the Prince will represent his mother at the Commonwealth Games in Queensland, since the Queen no longer does long-haul flights. Her Majesty remains, however, in remarkable health. “I saw her standing upright for two-and-a-half hours at an investiture the other day,” a courtier observed, “which is more than most of us would want to do.” The worry among her staff is how the Queen would absorb the shock of anything happening to the Duke of Edinburgh. This is another great unknowable factor in planning for the future, given that the Duke is not just of a very great age, but five years older than the Queen. “If he goes it will knock her sideways,” a friend says. “And it is hard to know how she will take it. But she takes her Coronation Oath very seriously. The most likely outcome is that she will bear herself with her usual dignity and just get on with it. She isn’t Queen Victoria, and won’t just retreat.” The Queen’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, lived into her 102nd year and was mentally sharp until the end. The Queen’s distaste for abdication – as her heir knows better than most – comes from the effect of that of her uncle, Edward VIII, not just on Britain and on the monarchy, but on her parents. Queen Elizabeth believed King George VI was driven to an early grave (he died aged 56) by the unexpected burdens of kingship. The Prince of Wales is infinitely better prepared, but the Queen simply does not regard monarchy as a job from which one resigns. A regency is a different matter, for it does not require the Queen to leave the Throne and cease to be head of state. If she becomes mentally impaired, or too weak in physical health to continue, then the 1937 Regency Act provides for the Prince of Wales to take over. A regency has to be decided, on the basis of medical evidence of incapacity, by three from the following group: the Lord Chancellor (one of whose subsidiary titles is “Keeper of the Queen’s Conscience”), the Speaker of the Commons, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the Sovereign’s spouse. The last time one pertained in this country was during King George III’s madness 200 years ago. Those close to the Queen believe she regards a potential regency as a safety-net in case of sudden infirmity, not as a get-out clause from reigning. Friends of the Royal family also play down other recent developments in the household. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, left her service in the summer after a decade in his job. He is expected to be given a peerage imminently. His long-serving deputy, Edward Young, a former banker whom friends describe as “brilliant”, replaced him. “There had been tensions between Geidt and the Prince of Wales,” says a courtier, “but they go with the territory and are far from rare in such relationships. They were not why Geidt left. His departure was not at all sinister.” Also Buckingham Palace, which had its last extensive overhaul when the current front was built in 1913, is undergoing a £369m refurbishment over the next 10 years. However, the Queen will continue to live there while the work goes on, and it is not a sign of any imminent change. “The Royal family has always been long term, not short term,” one of the Prince’s friends observes. There have been no sudden changes of plan; as a member of the Prince’s staff confirms, there is merely a process of “elegant evolution.” What we shall see at the Cenotaph next week is another step in that process; but the Queen is with us yet.