- This is the first installment of The Future Of... a new weekly series which seeks to examine in depth what the next 5-10 years holds in a variety of different areas.
It marked yet another seminal moment in the Queen’s reign and shows how quickly the monarchy has adapted to the coronavirus era.
Appearing on a video conferencing call alongside her daughter, Princess Anne, the 94-year-old monarch’s first video call engagement was hailed a resounding success on Thursday.
Speaking to four carers about the pressures they face as they carry out their vital work during the pandemic, HM’s appearance at the centre of a multi-screen of faces represented her first foray into digital royal duties since the beginning of lockdown.
Following in the footsteps of younger generations of royalty such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who have been carrying out virtual engagements since March, the Queen’s willingness to participate in the video conferencing calls showed just how determined she is to live up to her mantra of “being seen to be believed”.
Yet while she may have been forced to remain at Windsor Castle “indefinitely”, with her diary of engagements on hold, it doesn’t mean that the Queen isn’t carrying on behind the scenes. And as her video call debut shows - we may well be seeing a lot more of HM in the coming weeks and months.
Buckingham Palace remains closed to the public this summer, for the first time in 27 years and events such as Trooping the Colour, garden parties and the Order of the Garter service have already been cancelled. Princess Beatrice’s wedding has been postponed and plans for a state visit from South Africa in October are up in the air.
But despite all this, royal aides are very much looking to the future.
The Telegraph understands ‘tentative planning’ has already begun for the Duke of Edinburgh’s 100th birthday celebrations next June and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 - which is just 18 months away. As one royal aide put it:
“The royal household will do what it has always done - it will adapt.”
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has posed significant challenges for a family in such a public-facing role. Andrew Morton, whose 1992 book Diana Her True Story blew the lid off Charles and Diana’s failed marriage, worries that “the touchy-feely way of doing things created by Diana has been stopped in its tracks”. He insists that this threatens to “make the royals more remote”, just when it needs to endear itself to the public following the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to the US.
Claiming Her Majesty’s “We’ll meet again” speech to the nation should be regarded as her “finest hour”, the best-selling author said that the sovereign would not be able to carry out royal engagements “for months, if not years”. He has gone so far to suggest that the Queen’s reign is “effectively over” because of the crisis.
“How can she carry out investitures, meet ambassadors, do walkabouts and visit places without meeting people at close range?’ he asks.
“If she gets the bug it could be fatal and would put Prince Philip at risk as well. The brutal truth is that her reign is effectively over. Covid-19 has done more damage to the monarchy than Oliver Cromwell. Corona has practically put Charles on the throne.”
But others challenge this as a gross underestimation of the Queen’s ability to adapt to challenges put in her path. It is not as if the Queen’s role has been diminished during the outbreak - in fact it has arguably been enhanced and needed more than ever.
In the run up to the “We’ll Meet Again” speech, courtiers knew it was a question of “when not if” HM would address the nation. The timing was key.
The televised broadcast served as a reminder that the monarch doesn’t have to say much, that often, to have an enormous impact.
It is precisely because she chooses her words so carefully that they carry such weight. The coronavirus speech was watched by 24 million - that’s up there with Live Aid (albeit in April, some were watching online or on catch up).
If lockdown has demonstrated anything then it is the respect HM still commands after nearly seven decades on the throne - reaffirming her role as Mother of the Nation and a beacon of stability and continuity.
As Britain emerges from this crisis, with all the economic fallout the recovery will inevitably bring, there is a sense that we will want and need continued reassurance from a trusted figure like the Queen, who transcends politics. HM herself is under no illusion as to the importance of this aspect of her role. As the annual royal accounts state in black and white, the Queen is not just head of state but “head of nation”.
Published every year, the description of the “two distinct elements” comprising the Queen’s remit reads: “The Queen’s role as Head of Nation is as significant as Her role as Head of State, and can be divided into four key elements – unity and national identity, continuity and stability, achievement and success, and support of service.” It adds: “The Queen and the Monarchy are a stable fixture in many people’s lives.”
Royal aides are also at pains to point out that while the Queen might not be able to “meet and greet” at the moment, it remains business as usual when it comes to her red boxes, the leather-bound briefcases that carry her state papers. There are only two days a year when she does not delve into the contents - her birthday on April 21, and Christmas Day.
As well as holding regular telephone calls with the Prime Ministers and other British political figures, she also remains in “regular contact” with Commonwealth leaders. Earlier this month, the Court Circular revealed that she spoke with Arlene Foster, First minister of Northern Ireland and her deputy Michelle O’Neill from Windsor Castle. The daily diary of royal engagements remains remarkably full, even though duties are being carried out remotely. According to author Phil Dampier, who has been covering the royal beat for more than 30 years, the fact that the monarchy has been “slimmed down” in recent years makes the visibility of the Queen’s future role more important than ever.
“In the absence of Harry and Meghan and also Prince Andrew, there is pressure on all the royals, including the Queen, to fill the void.
“The current hiatus may well have given her time to recharge her batteries. There had been some talk of her handing over more responsibilities at 95 but I think the coronavirus crisis changes everything.
“You’ve seen the importance of her addresses during lockdown and the positive reaction to that which will make her think she’ll want to carry on for as long as possible.”
It is thought ‘Lilibet’, as she was known to her parents, still blames the 1936 abdication crisis for her dearest Papa’s premature death in 1952, which propelled her onto the throne at the tender age of 25.
A year later she took her Coronation oath before God, and as a deeply religious woman it seems unlikely she would ever consider going back on that “solemn promise”.
All of which explains why she has repeatedly made it clear that she regards the sovereignty as a job for life, with no question of her stepping down.
But could that change in the post-Covid era? It seems highly unlikely.
The monarch has already scaled down her workload to make allowances for her age over the past five years, and no longer undertakes long-haul travel.
Charles, in turn, has taken on more and more of her duties, including representing her at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings while the Duke of Cambridge now carries out investitures on his grandmother’s behalf.
Theoretically, the Queen’s physical absence from public life could help cement the argument for her son and grandson taking the rei(g)ns.
But in practice, very few people, if any, appear to be making the case for that - least of all HM or her heir. According to Dampier: “The truth is the Queen likes to be busy. She has always enjoyed her job and I can't see that changing."
Although Charles has been waiting his whole life to be King, no son wants to hurry along their own beloved mother’s demise. Similarly, with three children under six, and already under pressure to step up in Harry and Meghan’s absence, William is in no rush to become the next Prince of Wales - a far more onerous role than being second-in-line to the throne.
If anything, the Sussexes’ departure has helped to strengthen the bond between the three generations of monarchy, who are described as acting “in lockstep” on major decisions like the Duke of York stepping back from royal life, and Harry and Meghan being stripped of their “Sussex Royal” branding.
As far as the British public is concerned, the attitude is very much: “Long may she reign over us,” with the Queen repeatedly topping the royal popularity polls. You Gov currently says 75 per cent of Brits have a “positive opinion” of HM.
Why would anyone seek to change this carefully balanced dynamic, not least at a time when the future of Britain, and indeed the world, appears difficult enough to predict?
With a number of fields now converted to the idea of remote working, it is tempting to think the Royal Family look to reducing face-to-face interactions in the future, but like the unfounded abdication talk, it misses the whole point of the institution.
Of course, the Royals must be down with the digikids if the monarchy is to survive in the 21st century, but it is the physical presence of figures like the Queen - and the pomp and ceremony that goes with it, that often proves the biggest draw.
There is no doubt the Queen will have missed royal walkabouts, where she gets the chance to shake hands and chat with the public and she will be keen to resume such duties as soon as it is deemed safe for her to do so.
She once commented that she found it “strange” to be confronted by a sea of mobile phones on royal engagements, admitting: “I miss eye contact."
She will have particularly missed military events.
It speaks volumes that plans have even been put in place for a mini Trooping the Colour to take place on the Queen’s official birthday on June 13, with a Royal Salute from the military at Windsor Castle.
That they did reiterates the high regard in which the Queen holds such traditions. The idea that she would not want to continue carrying out engagements like meeting the changing commanders of regiments, for example, is unthinkable.
Similarly, it is via HM’s regular audiences with ambassadors and high commissioners that she gets to catch up on what is happening across her 16 Commonwealth realms. Anyone who has met the Queen usually comments on how well briefed she is. That is because she has made it a habit to keep her ear to the ground. She will certainly want one-on-one meetings to resume as soon as they possibly can. Having given Royal Ascot permission to go ahead behind closed doors this year, she is also no doubt relishing the idea of the summer season being restored in full in 2021.
In the meantime, few would object to a pair of nonagenarians putting their feet up in such circumstances. But HM and her husband of 72 years have never been the type to rest on their laurels. Although less active than he used to be following a spate of health problems, the Duke’s mantra has always been “I’ll rest when I’m dead.” He is understood to have spent recent weeks and months trawling through his paperwork and reading avidly.
Even having celebrated his 99th birthday this week, his thirst for knowledge remains undiminished.
If there is one consolation of lockdown for the Queen and her husband of 72 years it is that they have been reunited.
Philip was staying at Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate while the Queen was down in London. The idea was that the Duke would give his wife the space she needed to get on with her job at Buckingham Palace (very much regarded as ‘the office’) while he enjoyed his retirement up in Norfolk. Some found it strange they weren’t spending much time together but being practically-minded people, they thought it was the best course of action. Now circumstances have conspired to thrust them back together and both will undoubtedly have benefitted from the company.
Ordinarily the royal ‘court’ would have moved from Windsor to London last month, but will remain in Berkshire for the foreseeable future in accordance with the Government advice concerning “clinically vulnerable” over 75s.
Surrounded by 22 members of staff who are all locked down with the royal couple, the tight-knit set up has been dubbed HMS Bubble by Master of the Household Tony Johnstone-Burt.
The ex-naval officer has likened the operation to a long deployment at sea where sailors are separated from loved ones for months on end.
Yet unlike a planned voyage, no one knows quite when this journey will end.
Until she was photographed out riding in Windsor Great Park earlier this month, the last time we saw the Queen was at the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9.
That HM was pictured atop Balmoral Fern, a 14-year-old fell pony is significant.
It was the palace’s way of showing the world that the Queen, like the rest of us, is already adjusting to a new normal.
Preliminary planning is already under way on the Duke’s 100th birthday next June, with “tentative discussions” being held in advance of the Platinum Jubilee in 2022, marking the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s reign. The fact that the household is looking forward shows that they are trying to look beyond this nightmare to a better, brighter future.
What has been interesting about royal life since March 23 is that the Queen and her kin have managed to remain relevant despite the hardships suffered by their subjects. At the beginning of all this, HM released a statement to a world “entering a period of great concern and uncertainty.”
Reminding us that our nation’s history “has been forged by people and communities coming together to work as one,” she added: “Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge. You can be assured that my family and I stand ready to play our part.”
Having endured a second annus horribilis last year which almost sparked a constitutional crisis, they are now at the forefront of efforts to lead the country out of an unprecedented national emergency. And it has all been done under the watchful eye of a nonagenarian great-grandmother whose appetite for public duty appears undiminished despite her advancing years.
For the Queen knows better than anyone that the monarchy has not survived for 1,000 years without turning challenges into opportunities.
- Return to Telegraph.co.uk next Thursday, 18 June for the next installment of our The Future Of... series. It will be published at 8am BST
- How can the Queen adapt to a post-corona world? Have your say in the comments section below.