Palace aides are drafting plans for the Duchess of Cornwall to take on a significantly greater role – and it is possible she could even be appointed to an elite group of senior Royals who can carry out duties on behalf of the Queen.
Her Majesty’s decision to cancel all public engagements for at least the next fortnight, as she recovers from an unknown ailment, has raised concerns about a potential leadership gap at the head of the Royal Family if her illness persists or should the 95-year-old Monarch be incapacitated in the future.
So far, the Queen has continued to carry out her duties as Head of State, despite having to ‘reluctantly’ cancel a number of high-profile engagements over the past few weeks.
Palace aides are drafting plans for the Duchess of Cornwall to take on a significantly greater role – and she could even be appointed to an elite group of senior Royals who can carry out duties on behalf of the Queen (pictured, the Queen with Camilla in 2019)
The Monarch is still receiving her daily red boxes of Government documents. But constitutional experts last night expressed concern about the preparedness of the Royal Family if she becomes unable to fulfil the basic role of a Head of State.
Buckingham Palace says her medical team is simply taking ‘sensible precautions’ and Boris Johnson yesterday described the Queen as being on ‘good form’ when they spoke last week.
Significantly, however, sources say that Camilla, who was praised for a speech last week in which she called for more urgent action to tackle sexual violence against women, will be asked to help manage the workload.
Under rules enshrined in law and detailed on the official Royal website, four members of the family are currently entitled as ‘Counsellors of State’ to take over from the Queen if she is unable to perform her duties – if, for example, she were abroad or unwell.
The 95-year-old Monarch’s decision to cancel all public engagements for at least the next fortnight as she recovers from an unknown ailment has raised concerns about a potential leadership gap at the head of the Royal Family (pictured, the Queen last week)
These Counsellors are Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Andrew and Prince Harry, chosen because they are the four next in line to the throne and at least over the age of 18. This rules out William’s children George, Charlotte and Louis.
But neither Prince Andrew – who is fighting sex claims lodged in the US – nor Prince Harry, who has quit official duties and now lives in California, are currently working members of the Royal Family.
Vernon Bogdanor, the author of Monarchy And The Constitution and professor of government at King’s College London, said: ‘A Counsellor not domiciled in the UK cannot act, so that excludes Harry. The next in line and over the required age of 21 would be Princess Beatrice. However, most of the functions of the Head of State can be devolved. It is not, for example, constitutionally necessary for the Queen to attend the State Opening of Parliament.’
Officially, four members of the Royal family are currently entitled as ‘Counsellors of State’ to take over from the Queen if she is unable to perform her duties. These Counsellors are Prince Charles (pictured), Prince William, Prince Andrew and Prince Harry
Two Counsellors of State are required to act together in a ‘quorum’ to perform crucial functions, such as providing Royal assent to bills passing through Parliament and appointing High Court judges. Without such assent, these functions of Government cannot be enacted.
Dr Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University, said the current situation posed a potential problem for the smooth running of Government. ‘There is a small but genuine risk that the non-availability of Counsellors of State could impede the operation of the constitution. It could certainly make the day-to-day running of Government much more tricky.
‘The Counsellors of State are a Plan B from a constitutional point of view, but what happens when Plan B isn’t quite ideal? The Queen may look to add the Duchess of Cornwall, who would become a Counsellor of State when Charles is King anyway. Or they could go down the line to Princesses Beatrice or Eugenie, or add more members of the family, like Princess Anne or Prince Edward to the list.’
However, neither Prince Andrew (right), who is fighting sex claims lodged in the US, nor Prince Harry (left), who has quit official duties and now lives in California, are currently working members of the Royal Family
A source close to the Palace said: ‘This is a constitutional headache. With an ageing monarch there are talks about what will happen if the Queen is unable to work for some reason. You can’t have Andrew and Harry do it and Charles and William are extremely busy.’
There is precedent for Counsellors of State stepping in. During the Queen and Prince Philip’s tour of New Zealand in 1974, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret enacted the Queen’s wishes to dissolve Ted Heath’s Government.
Current Counsellors of State
Counsellors of State are appointed from among the four adults next in succession (provided they have reached the age of 21).
The current Counsellors of State are The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge, The Duke of Sussex and The Duke of York.
Mr Johnson yesterday sought to allay any alarm about the Queen, saying the public must ‘respect’ her need to rest for a short period of time.
Speaking to ITV News in Rome during the G20 summit, he said: ‘I spoke to Her Majesty, as I do every week as part of my job, and she was on very good form. She has been told by her doctors that she has got to rest, and I think we have got to respect that and understand that. Everybody wishes her all the very best.’
As well as speaking to Mr Johnson, the Queen talked to Chancellor Rishi Sunak ahead of his Budget announcement and recorded a speech at Windsor Castle which will be shown at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow tomorrow.
The Queen was forced to cancel a trip to Northern Ireland earlier this month on the advice of doctors.
The announcement that she will rest for ‘at least’ another fortnight means she will miss the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall. But she hopes to be fit enough to attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph on November 14. Prince Charles will lay a wreath on behalf of his mother, as he has done in recent years, with the plan for her to again watch from a nearby balcony.
Charles will then fly out for an official tour of Jordan and Egypt, effectively leaving William as the only Counsellor of State.
A Royal insider said: ‘The Counsellors of State are there to provide a more temporary stopgap. I expect that quite an extraordinary series of events would be required to lead to a Regency. Her Majesty will be committed to carrying out her duties as long as she possibly can.’
Buckingham Palace declined to comment.
What would happen if the Queen became too ill to carry on?
By Kate Mansey
Q: Is the Queen currently unable to fulfil her duties?
A: No. The Palace says she is carrying out ‘light duties’, which include those required as Head of State.
Q: What would happen if she became too ill to work?
A: The Counsellors of State, usually the Monarch’s spouse plus those in the direct line of succession, would be given the power to carry out the Queen’s official duties.
Q: Who are the current Counsellors?
A: Princes Charles, William, Harry and Andrew. Counsellors must live in the UK, which Harry does not, and be over the age of 21 unless they are the direct heir to the throne, when the age restriction is lowered to 18.
Q: What would they do?
A: The Queen’s approval is needed for a range of decisions to become law, though she has no real decision-making power. It includes giving Royal assent to bills passed by Parliament, appointing judges and Queen’s Council, ratifying treaties and appointing peers. If the Queen is unfit or unable to read and understand the necessary papers and sign her consent, the job would fall to the Counsellors. Two are needed to approve documents on behalf of the Queen.
Q: What can they not do?
A: Counsellors do not have decision-making powers, meaning they cannot dissolve Parliament except with the express declaration of the Sovereign. The Counsellors cannot appoint a Prime Minister, preside over Commonwealth matters or grant titles and they cannot make changes to the order of succession.
Q: When was the last time the Counsellors were called on?
A: The Counsellors can be asked to take over when the Monarch is overseas, as well as when they are incapacitated. It is thought that the last time the Sovereign’s power was passed to the Counsellors of State was in 2015 when the Queen went to Malta with Prince Philip.
Q: What would happen if the Queen were to become permanently physically or mentally unfit to continue?
A: While there is no suggestion of this at present, it would spark a full Regency under the 1937 Act. At least three of the following – Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab, Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Lord Chief Justice of England Lord Burnett and Master of the Rolls Sir Geoffrey Vos – would have to declare in writing they are satisfied with medical opinions that the Sovereign was unfit to rule. Charles would swear an oath as Prince Regent and assume the powers of the Monarch.
Q: Could the Duchess of Cornwall be made a Counsellor?
A: While Camilla is not in the direct line to the throne, the Queen could make her a Counsellor and she would automatically become one when Charles is King.
Q: Could Harry and Andrew be removed without their consent, and if that happened who might replace them?
A: It is considered unlikely that the Queen would remove Harry and Andrew, but Charles may have more appetite to do so. If Harry were removed, Princess Beatrice would be the next in line, but the Monarch might instead choose to appoint her daughter Princess Anne or youngest son Prince Edward, who are both full-time working Royals.