Thoughts swing to "King Charles III" as Queen's back problems continue

The Queen may not be able to open Parliament due to her bad back. Contingency plans are being drawn up.......

Parliament opening streamlined in wake of Queen's back problems


3rd November 2006

The Queen is now back at work - but cut short her day - as it emerged that contingency plans are being drawn up in case the monarch's troubling back does not heal in time for the State Opening of Parliament.

Concern was centred on whether the injury she picked up while walking at Balmoral last month, would be aggravated by the journey to Wesminster in horse drawn coach.

Buckingham Palace insisted that she intended to preside over the new parliamentary session 'in the usual way'. But privately an aide admitted: "We will see how the Queen gets on over the weekend and then make a judgement."

Whenever the Queen is ill thoughts swivel towards 'King Charles'. She is 80 and all this week has been in pain with her back. Charles is in Pakistan with Camilla who - be in no doubt - he is implacably determined will be his Queen.

Happily, the Queen's affliction is not life-threatening - but at her age back problems tend not to heal at the speed of younger sufferers and can be the precurser to more serious conditions.

So it is no wonder Palace minds are concentrated on November 15 when the Queen is scheduled to preside over the State Opening of Parliament, one of the key constitutional events of the domestic calendar.

But what if her back is so bad that she doesn't make it? In particular, clattering to parliament wearing the heavy robes of state and the 2lb Imperial Crown in the Irish state coach with its minimal springing, is just the kind of journey that back sufferers would do anything to avoid.

Then there are the labrynthine corriodrs and staircases she has to climb at the House of Lords - the Queen, remember, is not the kind of monarch who would allow the world to see her with a grimace of pain on her face.

No-one knows at this moment, least of all the Queen herself, whether she will make it, though her recent frequent rests and the cancellation of some of her official engagements, are intended to rest her back in the hope that she will.

So if she is unfit this throws up the intriguing possibility of whether the Prince of Wales would stand in for her.

And since the Queen is traditionally accompanied by Prince Philip, sitting side-by-side on state thrones, might Charles expect to be accompanied by the former Mrs Parker Bowles, though they could not wear crowns nor sit on the thrones?

Traditionally, going back to Queen Victoria's day the Lord Chancellor has stood in for the monarch. The same has happened during the 53-year reign of our present Queen on the two occasions in 1959 and 1963 when she couldn't do it because she was pregnant with Andrew and then Edward.

On the first occasion Prince Charles was 11, and at the second he was 15. Now, of course, it is said he would be 'delighted to do it' should his mother stand down and the constitution allow.

The Queen could request that Charles stand in for her. But as a palace aide said yesterday: "If anything is likely to heal Her Majesty's painful back it is the thought of Camilla parading along the carpeted corridors of the House of Lords."

All in all, what is most likely to happen if the Queen cannot do it, is that, following tradition, the speech would be read by the Lord Chancellor, Tony Blair's longtime crony Charlie Falconer, or by Labour peer Baronnes Hayman, the first Speaker of the Lords.

Of course, the Queen is more robust than most women of her age. She rides (slowly, on manageable horses) and eats sensibly. She is not overweight - still a size 14 - and, like her mother, has a heart that has been described to us as 'like that of a bull'.

Even so, recent years have produced a series of minor health problems including her knee operation in 2003 and troubling lesions on her right eye only last week which, typically, she did not try to hide with dark glasses.

Her absence for most of this week from the public stage heralds a significant shift in her workload. But she still does a full day's work.

Even with a painful back at Sandringham, where she went at the weekend before flying back to London in a helicopter, she has been doing paperwork and at Buckingham Palace, carrying out lighter engagements including receiving visiting diplomats.

She has made one concession to her discomfort - ordering her chauffeur to avoid Birdcage Walk when driving her too and from the Palace because of the speed bumps that have to be navigated.

Just when she will mount a horse again is another matter. She misses it hugely. Riding, next to walking, is her greatest relaxation and her back problems may well be related to it.

All her life she has refused to wear a hard hat because she finds it uncomfortable, covering her hair in just a headscarf. In recent times anxious courtiers have watched her cantering away fulling expecting, as one says, 'that one of these days she'll take a fall and hurt her head'.

She has fallen seriously once, some 60 years ago when she was about 20. The fall, unrecorded in any histories, hurt her back and there were fears she might never walk properly again.

The man who saved her was manipulative surgeon Sir Morton Smart who, although not formally qualified as a medical practitioner, served the royal family as a physiotherapist from the reign of George V.

The only reference to the incident that has, until now, never been known was when Sir Morton died in 1956 and the Queen, who had been on the throne just four years, was asked by an assistant private secretary at Buckingham Palace if she wanted to be represented at his funeral.

"Very much", came her reply. "Had it not been for him I think I should have been a cripple." One former lady-in-waiting expresses concern that the Queen has been cancelling engagements.

"I find that rather worrying," she says. "She must be in considerable pain to do that. But she's very good with her doctors - very obedient."

One recent visitor to Balmoral as a guest of the Queen and Prince Philip last month before the back pain struck was 'astonished' by the scale of physical activity led by a woman of 80.

"From the moment we arrived were were on the go -and so was she," he says. "She invited us to go walking first and then, after tea, to accompany her on another walk. I think it's the secret of her longevity and her stamina."

Barely two weeks ago - when the Queen was already experiencing back pain - she and Philip, who is 85, were on a demanding official visit to the Baltic states. At times the strain on the Queen was tremendous, but hasn't it always been like that?

Two years ago while listening to a speech in Germany, she was caught on camera nodding off.

One has to wonder now, whether that was a preliminary glimpse of things to come, and that her legendary stamina could be on the wane. If so, what might it mean?

Already the duration of many of her official duties has been subtly cut back, and it cannot be much longer before there is a similar cut back in the number of official duties she still carries out - nearly 450 at home and abroad last year.

If ever there was an opportunity for the Duchess of Cornwall to raise her game and prove that critics are wrong to call her lazy, it is now.

That she can do it when she tries has been very clear this past week when she and Charles have been enthusiastically touring Pakistan.

Nothing would please the Prince of Wales more than for his wife's role to be elevated to that of filling gaps created by an ageing monarch, because it would accelerate general acceptance of her as his future Queen.

But will that happen?This week in the court circular, as the Mail revealed, the name Prince William stood out among the list of royals on formal engagements.

This was a clear signal that as the Queen's official life recedes, William's is about to be promoted, especially, we understand, in relation to visits and responsibilities in the Commonwealth.

William, who is soon to leave Sandhurst and join the Blues and Royals, has, significantly, been included in the official party attending the dedication of the New Zealand war memorial in London a week today.

Meanwhile, the Queen's gruelling years grind on and we know that, barring extreme ill health such as Alzheimers, she will never abdicate.

The burst blood vessel in her right eye last month may have been one of those tell-tale but insignificant signs of old age, but it could signify high blood pressure.

The portents for longevity, however, are good. She has never smoked and, unlike the Queen Mother, is a light drinker. Her favourite tipple remains a chilled dry Martini made with gin straight from the fridge - during the current period of back pain her consumption is understood to have increased slightly.

But the inescapable fact is that she is closing fast on her 81st birthday next April, and now her mobility is in question.

She is much admired and much loved, but isn't it selfish of the nation to continue to expect so much of her?
I am actually so proud of our Queen. Her sense of duty and dedication to her task leaves me breathless. Her energy at 8o is greater than many people much younger.

Unlike the popular mind-thought, I also am quite fond of Prince Charles. I think he will make quite a dedicated and capable King.