One of the cruellest and most accurate remarks made about Prince Charles is that he is less king-in-waiting and more the perennial prince, forever hanging about in his mother’s shadow and increasingly desperate to assume the throne.
Yet he is now 73 years old, and will be the oldest monarch to ascend the throne since William IV, who became king aged 64 in 1830. This is a source of endless frustration to Charles. Newspaper briefings by well-placed courtiers have suggested he longs for greater involvement in the day-to-day running of ‘the Firm’, perhaps even culminating in an official Regency, given his mother’s declining health.
Today he has perhaps his most high-profile opportunity yet, with his delivery of the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament following his mother’s indisposition. It has been suggested that the Queen suffers from ‘episodic mobility issues’ – which is why she needed the support of Prince Andrew to walk to Prince Philip’s recent memorial service. There is also the undeniable fact that a long, formal speech is a gruelling ordeal for a 96-year old woman.
It has therefore fallen to her eldest son and heir to take over the responsibility. You cannot imagine that he hesitated too long before accepting.
Seeing Charles in a symbolic position of monarchical pomp is something that he has wanted for a considerable time. There has been a great deal of behind-the-scenes debate about whether it would be irresponsible to formally announce that he is taking over all royal responsibilities from his mother to allow her to enjoy her remaining years in peace, but this seems unlikely.
Not only is the Queen’s adherence to duty legendary – she will not have wished to shirk her responsibilities today – but there is the sense that this could establish an unwelcome precedent that could then be used against Charles himself in turn.
While there is no suggestion that Prince William wishes to take over the throne for decades – not least because of the strains and pressures that it would place on his young family – the Duke of Cambridge has put himself at the centre of the Royal Family’s decision-making. William promises to be a more interventionist and publicly forthright Prince of Wales than his father, raising the possibility of two rival courts in public opposition to one another.
Prince Charles is still not the most popular member of the royal family. He has skilfully rebranded himself from the spoilt adulterous husband of the Diana era into a gentler, calmer ‘father of the nation’ figure. His marriage to Camilla has helped him to be seen as a more family-oriented man. But if he wishes to be loved, rather than merely accepted, he has a considerable task ahead of him. He will not command as much public affection as his mother. Charles fears, reasonably, that he will be seen as an interim monarch between two greater and more dynamic figures.
Charles’ presence in parliament today, then, should be regarded as a cautious attempt to prepare the groundwork for King Charles III. But any over-excitable talk that this suggests the beginning of an actual Regency should be taken with suitable scepticism. The perennial prince has teetered on the age of national acceptance for decades. Trying to force the issue now, ahead of time, would be both foolish and profoundly unnecessary.
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