The U.S. Constitution allows for the fact that when the President is—even briefly—unable to discharge the powers and duties of their office, these can be transferred to the Vice President. And this notably came into effect in November 2021 when Kamala Harris became the first woman to be given presidential powers while Joe Biden was anesthetized for a colonoscopy. So many may now be wondering whether the UK has a similar process for their head of state and whether heir Prince William will formally step in when King Charles undergoes his hospital procedure next week.
In short, the answer is no: There is no precedent in the UK that requires a formal handover from monarch to heir during medical procedures. While the King’s procedure is minor, even when the sovereign has been under general anesthetic in the past, as King George VI was in 1951 for his lung operation and Queen Elizabeth was for her knee operation in 2003, there was no handover. However, the question throws up some important points about how the UK is run and how monarchy works if the sovereign is unable to discharge their duties.
It is worth emphasizing straight away that, unlike the President, the monarch is purely a figurehead and has no political powers. So if the sovereign is incapacitated, that does not get in the way of the country being run by the Prime Minister and government (as a side note when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in intensive care with coronavirus in 2020 he handed over to the foreign secretary Dominic Raab, although there was no constitutional requirement for this).
Another distinction between the US and the UK is that the UK constitution is not written in a single document where such things could be laid out. Instead, how the country is governed is determined by the precedent set by different laws, documents and principles over the centuries. And one of those includes the Regency Act of 1937, which deals with both long-term and short term unavailability of the monarch.
The Regency Act states that if the sovereign is under 18 when he or she comes to the throne or if the sovereign is totally incapacitated, then the next in line is appointed as Regent (unless they are also under 18 then it would fall to the next in line and so on). However, the Act also deals with temporary absence from the sovereign that wouldn’t require a regency but instead something known as Counsellors of State.
“Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937 allows the Monarch to delegate certain royal functions to Counsellors of State if he is absent from the United Kingdom (ie on an overseas visit) or unwell. Letters Patent (a legal document) specifies the duties these Counsellors can carry out, which can include holding Privy Council meetings or granting Royal Assent to legislations,” UK Parliament states.
The current Counsellors of State are Queen Camilla, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice, with Princess Anne and Prince Edward added in 2022 in an amendment to the Act after Harry and Andrew stepped back as working royals.
However, with all that said, when asked this week about whether any Counsellors of State would step in for King Charles while he undergoes his procedure, Buckingham Palace made it clear that they didn’t expect that to be needed.
You Might Also Like