In The Windsors, the eminently brilliant and wickedly funny British comedy, swatty, nebbish ‘Prince William’ spends a lot of time fretting about a “constitutional craysaaaaas”. Meanwhile, ‘Prince Charles’ keeps muttering, “the line’s very clear, first me and then William but ME FIRST”.
Now, life has just started to imitate art in an entirely creepy way.
This week the world found out that King Charles has cancer, type unknown, though thanks to loose-lipped Prime Minister Rishi Sunak we know it was “caught early”.
However now the bombshell news is out, now that we have all gotten over the shock and repeatedly refreshed internet pages waiting for more – anything – to come out (welcome to Waiting for Godot: Royal Edition) it’s time to take stock.
For days, every journalist ever forced to laboriously type out ‘Sandringham’ has been talking about the ‘C’ word – but the even bigger one that is now inching perilously close to being on the table is the ‘A’ word – abdication.
The possibility that the world could one day see the King take such a dramatic and historic step came just that bit closer this week. Abdication might still be considered the Voldemort of the royal world but it’s a subject that has cropped up on both Good Morning Britain and on the GB News network in recent days.
His Majesty is, right now, still very much able to undertake constitutional and State duties, daily wading through his red box and keeping up with his weekly audience with the PM via telephone. (Doctors have advised him to minimise public engagements to minimise the risk of infection.) Also, thanks to the pandemic much of the infrastructure for remote working is in place.
The problem for Charles will come if, in the future, either because of his treatment or possible complications, His Majesty finds himself struggling to keep up with the duties that only a throne-sitter can do. While he can delegate some of his duties by appointing Counsellors of State, such as granting Royal Assent to legislation, or holding Privy Council meetings, there are others, like dissolving parliament, that only the monarch can do.
The thing is, this is not just theoretical. At some stage this year Britain will go to the polls, with the likely arrival of Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer to 10 Downing Street, after 14 years of conservative governments, a pivotal moment.
Sadly, it is not inconceivable any longer that we might reach a point at which His Majesty struggles with the energy and pep required to undertake the job.
If nothing else, consider the pace at which he works. Charles, a well-established workaholic, can reportedly often still be found at his desk at midnight. In 2023 he undertook 516 engagements in three countries, gave speeches in both French and German, and hosted a South Korean State Visit.
What happens if we reach a point where this sort of load is simply no longer possible?
It is highly likely that we will see the public and Whitehall make plenty of concessions right now, but it is not hard to imagine a point in the future where these compromises might start to become untenable; a point at which cooler heads might start to wonder if it’s time to take some sort of formal step to recognise Charles’s reduced capacity and regal bandwidth.
Historian AN Wilson, taking to the pages of the Daily Mail, has declared that this week “is not simply a sobering moment in the history of the Windsor family. It is a potential constitutional crisis-point.”
Prince William, Wilson writes, “is also much, MUCH closer than anyone could have guessed to having to take on the role now occupied by his father.”
The question here is, how long will Britons accept a sidelined King? A King whose visibility and presence is significantly reduced? Even Victorian Britain in the 19th century grumbled loudly when grief-stricken Queen Victoria took herself off to Scotland or the Isle of Wight for extended stints.
The King is not just a man with an important job – he’s a symbol. And symbols don’t work if they are tucked away at home and away from drafts for the longer term.
If we have learnt one thing already in 2024 it is that the impossible can become all too possible overnight.
In 2012, on the 40th anniversary of her accession, then Queen Margrethe firmly declared: “I will remain on the throne until I drop.” We all know how that one turned out now don’t we?
(It’s worth noting here that Margrethe’s health problems are said to have triggered her stunner of a decision.)
Attitudes have changed a lot in only the last decade.
Abdication, once carrying with it a certain taint, has increasingly gone mainstream in Europe. In 2013 Queen Beatrix made way for her son, now King Willem-Alexander, the same year Belgium’s King Albert II stepped down; the grand dukes of Luxembourg have been doing it for yonks, most recently Grand Duke Jean in 2000; and in 2014 scandal-prone Spanish King Juan-Carlos absented the throne.
While the late Queen reviled the notion of abdication following her uncle Edward VIII’s decision to trade the crown to lollygag about Paris with his inamorata Wallis, Charles is much more modern and practical. (Well, in some regards. This is also the man who famously once yelped and sent guests running when he saw Gladwrap for the first time in the 2000s, never having spied such a mysterious product before.)
It’s not a stretch at all to consider a scenario, down the track, he might decide to put the wellbeing of the monarchy ahead of his own ego and personal yearning to remain the only person who gets to have a go with a sceptre.
I know, I know, I can hear you Charles fans out there scoffing a bit. As if. His Majesty is an otherwise hale and hearty 75 years old, 21 years younger than his mother, the late Queen, was when she pootled off to her just reward (and to be reunited with her more than 30 corgis). The King’s father made it to 99 years old and his grandmother, the Queen Mother, to 101 – and they are both said to have survived cancer. (Twice in the Queen Mother’s case.)
But we are a long way from the days when a legendary former Queen can knock back doubles before 11am and from a time when very serious health conditions can be swept under Palace rugs and we can pretend everything is fine and dandy.
It’s not too extreme to think that this once unthinkable choice, of abdicating, could be one that Charles might face.
Let me say here though – please no. I think Charles is, and will continue to be, a pretty top-notch King. (Though I will give him higher marks if and when he confronts the monarchy’s historical ties to slavery.) Also, I want William and wife Kate the Princess of Wales to enjoy the comparative freedom of their current roles for ages yet. Let them continue to eat cake they have bought themselves from Waitrose for a bit longer!
Should anyone have a working crystal ball, above-average clairvoyant skills or is a dab hand at tarot, do contact me. The twisty-turny, herky-jerky events of 2024 alone mean that nothing can be fully discounted now.
Daniela Elser is a writer, editor and a royal commentator with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
Read related topics:King Charles IIIPrince William