Sources close to Queen Elizabeth II this week told The Daily Beast that, in a few weeks’ time, she intends to break her summer sojourn at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and travel down to London to perform one of her most important constitutional duties; inviting a new prime minister to form a government in her name.
A source told The Daily Beast, “It is expected she will interrupt her Balmoral break to return to London for the PM switch.” The source said that the “actual venue” would be confirmed nearer the time, in an attempt to leave some margin for error, but the reality is that now, if the 96-year-old queen does not make the long journey to London for the richly symbolic occasion on Tuesday, Sept. 6, disappointment and renewed speculation about her officially professed wellness will ensue.
The queen’s determination to formally anoint the new PM comes despite disappointment this week when the queen was forced to cancel yet another public appearance. This time, it was a ceremony in which the queen is welcomed to Scotland, with a mini-parade outside the gates of Balmoral, which was axed and relocated inside the castle’s walls.
The need for the queen to welcome a new PM has been occasioned by Britain’s ruling Conservative party ejecting Boris Johnson as its leader. Under Britain’s parliamentary system, the new party leader (probably the right-leaning Liz Truss) will become the new PM, and that new PM has to then be invited to form a government by the queen.
And certainly, there is no denying that if it all works out, the resulting photo-op will be an impressive rejoinder to those who say the queen is too old and too frail to carry out her job and should step down.
Photographs of the ancient ritual—which has never been filmed but was memorably dramatized in the Peter Morgan-scripted film The Queen, with Helen Mirren playing Her Majesty and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair—are usually disseminated to the press. The crowning of the last PM but one, Theresa May, was the subject of particular debate after the new leader was pictured genuflecting in front of the queen.
So the reward, if it works out, wil be another fabulous ta-da moment for the queen, after the impressive double ta-da of the Jubilee, in which HM’s two balcony appearances, resplendent in mauve and green respectively, were the stuff of which the greatest theatrical minds could only dream of.
But what if the big September plan goes the way of that little ceremony that had been scheduled to take place outside the gates of Balmoral this week?
Although a source told The Daily Beast the change to the Scottish plan was made to preserve the queen’s “comfort,” one can’t help feeling that the last minute tearing up and hasty restitching of the schedule to make the moment “private” also had a fair bit to do with the absence of TV cameras, photographers, reporters or the general public, thereby allowing the ongoing preservation of the narrative that, other than some vaguely defined mobility issues, the queen is just fine.
Some observers are now questioning whether it is really the wisest thing for HM to have set a very public tick-tock in motion by saying she will host the high profile ceremony in London rather than, for example, either doing it by video link, requesting the new PM come to Balmoral, or sending Charles in her place as she did to this year’s formal state opening of Parliament.
Because what if she is having a bad day, six weeks hence, and the queen has to cancel at the last minute?
It will look all too much like a rerun of the Cop26 debacle last year, where a will-she-won’t-she make it narrative sucked up a lot of the oxygen before the environmental conference, and the final decision of the queen to pull out completely overshadowed the event’s actual messaging.
And behind all this, of course, is the big question: what is really wrong with the queen and is it going to impact her ability to do her job?
Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, told The Daily Beast: “I'll be amazed if the 96-year-old monarch does travel to London for this purpose next month and wonder if there really is a need for her to meet her 15th British prime minister in person. Could it not be done virtually, as is the case with incoming ambassadors to the U.K.? Or perhaps the new prime minister could fly up to Scotland and be received by the queen at Balmoral.”
There is an element of ruthless image management to all this, Little adds, saying: “Buckingham Palace has always been keen to avoid any inference that HM is frail and the accepted line is that she remains very much in charge. That's how she likes it. However, that’s proved difficult of late.”
Indeed, the queen’s unwillingness to be seen as anything other than a strong entirely capable and well figurehead is one of the defining characteristics of the long and bumpy road to “London Bridge,” as the queen’s death is officially codenamed.
The British media has been, for the most part, happy to play along, and does not seem to ask too many questions about what exactly it is that the queen is so keen for us not to see. The palace reacts irritably to even modest suggestions that the queen might be using a wheelchair, and having made one outing on her luxury golf buggy back in June, the queen seems less than enthusiastic to be pictured on it again.
Whatever is really wrong with the queen—and the Royalist has been told by sources that it is everything from the catastrophic (bone cancer) to the more minor mundanities of old age (a bad hip that really should be replaced)—the palace continues to insist she is, basically, fine, and just suffering from “episodic mobility problems.”
But what is evident, most notably in the cancellation of events and her seeming frailty when she is seen, leads observers to conclude that this is very far from the case. The truth about the queen’s health may never be known, which is presumably just the way she wants it.