After the events of the past two years, you’d think that Buckingham Palace’s lieutenants would be deft, practised hands in a crisis. That they would be used to getting a call from some lowly aide bearing the bad news du jour, slip into an impeccably pressed Savile Row suit and, armed with nothing more than a strong cup of Earl Grey tea and vim of a devoted regal supplicant, competently get to work.
It has now been nearly a week since news broke that the Queen is in the midst of some sort of health drama, the severity of which is shrouded in more secrecy than Area 51.
What was first characterised by a spokesman last week as the Queen having “reluctantly accepted medical advice” to put her feet up for a new days has turned out to be a more serious situation. It transpired Her Majesty had been hospitalised overnight for the first time in eight years, highly unusually missed church on Sunday and, as of Wednesday morning, pulled out of her in-person appearance at next week’s COP26 climate conference.
Wednesday’s drastic news, that she will deliver her address to world leaders via video, is, if you will believe the line being peddled by the palace, that a “disappointed” Queen is currently “undertaking light duties at Windsor Castle” and she “has regretfully decided that she will no longer travel” to Glasgow.
Queen Elizabeth II holds a virtual audience via video link with the Ambassador from the Swiss Confederation, Markus Leitner from Windsor Castle on October 26. Photo / AP
However, this “keep calm and carry on buying palace gift shop tea towels” line seems to have had the reverse effect and is stoking concern about what the true state of the 95-year-old’s health might be.
Adding fuel to the fretful fire is that, last week, a palace spokesperson said she was “in good spirits”. Today, a source has told the Telegraph she “remains in good spirits”.
Buckingham Palace’s anodyne statements have been stuffed with exactly the same detail-free phrasing as they hauled out when Prince Philip was hospitalised this year, thus ramping up worry for the sovereign.
The palace, throughout this current mess, has handled the situation about as well as a vegetarian at Hogmanay. (So. Much. Haggis.)
First, aides let the press believe the Queen was at Windsor Castle, where the royal standard continued to fly, when in fact she was 40km away in London in a private hospital, only for this canard to be revealed to the world by the Sun, forcing an embarrassing admission.
Queen Elizabeth II, followed by Princess Anne, right, arrives to attend a Service of Thanksgiving to mark the Centenary of the Royal British Legion at Westminster Abbey, on October 12. Photo / AP
This clumsy handling of things has meant that, for days on end now, Her Majesty’s wellbeing has dominated newspaper front pages. And what any seasoned hack, royal watcher or West Wing aficionado can tell you is that an information void only creates dangerous space for speculation and rumour to flourish.
While it is now a waiting game to see whether this emergency passes or whether this might signal more significant health problems for the Queen, what has become crystal clear is how abysmal the royal house is at handling these critical moments when the eyes of the world are on them.
For God’s sake: Haven’t they had enough practice?
Next month marks two years since Prince Andrew sat down with the BBC’s Newsnight and committed the televisual equivalent of hari kari, giving such a humiliating and horrifying performance that within days he was forced to quit public life.
Then, in January 2020, came Megxit, with Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, setting off an unprecedented convulsion. This they have followed up with a series of eyebrow-raising commercial deals (a vegan latte brand! A Wall Street investment fund! A Silicon Valley start-up!) and with score-setting outbursts of scorching truth-telling.
Throughout all of this, time and time and infuriating time again, Buckingham Palace has proven spectacularly inept at managing the mayhem, falling back on their stock standard one-two response of putting out some sort of rote statement followed by strategic whispering to sympathetic reporters in London.
Queen Elizabeth greets guests at a reception for the Global Investment Summit in Windsor Castle on October 19. Photo / AP
While this particular playbook might have worked a treat back when toe-sucking imbroglios were the go, today, with accusations of sexual assault, institutional racism and emotional cruelty flying around the place, this tired approach doesn’t even begin to cut it.
You would think after the turbulence and stress of the past 24 months, someone would have had a long hard look at the royal family’s approach to PR calamities and come up with a new blueprint. You know, get a white board, a jumbo pack of digestive biscuits, bring together the best and brightest that Whitehall, White’s and Sandhurst have to offer, and settle in for a lengthy strategy session.
At stake for the royal family here is public trust, a commodity that the monarchy is in desperate need of ginning up if they want to survive. Instead, faith in what the palace says and how straightforward it is with the outside world has now hit a new low.
None of this bodes well given two ferocious PR storms are on the horizon.
Yesterday, a judge in New York handed down the timetable for the lawsuit against Prince Andrew in which former sex trafficking victim Virginia Giuffre (nee Roberts) alleges the royal sexually assaulted her on three occasions. (The Duke of York has repeatedly and strenuously denied the allegations.) Key dates for the case, as it wends its way through the American legal system, are now set down for May, June and July next year, smack bang right when his mother will be celebrating her Platinum Jubilee.
The Jubilee should represent something of a reputational reset for the palace after the never-ending drama of the past few years. Lots of tiny smiling HRHs will be waving from the Buckingham Palace balcony, there will be lovely hats and bunting galore, all a glorious reminder of the cheering pomp and ceremony of the monarchy. (That four-day bank holiday in June won’t hurt public support either.) The monarch’s power, what it is, comes at the mercy of the people or at least their apathetic acquiescence to the continuation of the regal status quo.
The Royal Standard flies above Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England. Photo / AP
Now, instead of the media and Britain being able to get lost in a pleasant fog of royalist fervour next year, the very dark clouds of the Andrew case will hang ominously over the palace casting a miserable pall on the celebrations. No amount of bunting can even begin to address that.
Then there’s Harry’s memoir, which is set for release sometime next year. Will it be 200-plus pages of affirming personal mantras, a long screed about the power of green juice and some entertaining stories about Princess Anne after a few too many postprandial brandies? Ha!
What the Sussexes’ Oprah revelations and Harry’s subsequent interviews have demonstrated is that the royal is yet to truly plumb the depths of his reservoir of hurt and anger when it comes to his family. The possibility that his book will condemn the royal family and the monarchy even more than we have seen thus far looms large.
So, if the palace is wrong-footed and unable to successfully navigate this week’s relatively straightforward crisis over Her Majesty’s health, how in the name of Fortnum & Mason are they going to be able to deal with the Category Five emergencies that are set to hit next year?
The Men in Grey (as Diana, Princess of Wales dubbed courtiers) can’t seem to even manage this situation, which bodes nothing short of catastrophically given what is just around the corner for them. Nothing short of a rout seems the likely outcome.
Here’s hoping – nay, praying – that whatever ails Her Majesty right now is comparatively minor and that she will be back at work accepting posies from schoolchildren in no time. Heaven knows the palace – and intrepid royal writers everywhere – are not ready for her to go anywhere for a long, long time.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.