Queen’s ‘dangerous’ day of reckoning
Yesterday, rumours blanketed social media that the Queen had passed away. Members of the Household Cavalry were supposedly being recalled. Buckingham Palace, allegedly, was gearing up to release the tragic news.
All of which was clearly a hoax and thankfully the 93-year-old monarch is still very much alive. However it is telling that this brief furore barely registered thanks to the storm clouds that have been hovering over Buckingham Palace in the last 24 hours.
On Tuesday morning, Sydney-time, Virginia Giuffre appeared on a one-hour episode of the BBC's Panorama program, reiterating her claims that she had sex with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, when she was 17 years old and was being sex trafficked by billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Among other claims, Giuffre, formerly Virginia Roberts, said of her first alleged sexual encounter with Andrew: "It didn't last very long, the whole entire procedure. It was disgusting … He wasn't mean or anything, but he got up and he said 'thanks' and walked out."
Andrew has strenuously denied Giuffre's claims and Buckingham Palace has put out a statement saying: "It is emphatically denied that The Duke of York had any form of sexual contact or relationship with Virginia Roberts. Any claim to the contrary is false and without foundation."
It has now been 16 (long) days since Andrew gave his bombshell, tone deaf Newsnight interview, offering a series of laughable alibis in an attempt to disprove Giuffre's allegations. Ultimately, his failure to express compassion for Epstein's victims during the broadcast and his suggestion that the behaviour of the convicted sex offender was "unbecoming" rather than illegal swiftly earned him nearly universal condemnation.
Since then, things have gone from bad to worse for The Firm.
Andrew has been effectively sacked as a full-time member of the royal family, relegated to the shadows while his siblings, nieces and nephews get on with the business of state.
Facing a groundswell of public disapproval, Andrew has stepped back from his 200-plus charity patronages.
Gone is his Buckingham Palace office and he has been forced to relinquish any involvement with his pet initiative pitch@palace, now tepidly rebranded as "Pitch" lacking any royal imprimatur.
Meanwhile, there has been a certain collective, public schadenfreude at the 59-year-old's stunning and speedy downfall.
Long gone are his days of being a globetrotting wheeler and dealer for British business with a penchant for taxpayer-funded private jets. Instead, he now faces ignominy and endless, aimless rounds of golf.
Andrew's ousting is a historic moment, for all the wrong reasons.
Advancing years or death are usually the only acceptable reasons an HRH steps away from their full-time roster of events.
Instead the Duke, who is reportedly her Majesty's favourite child, has been humiliatingly shunted into the background and denied any role in public life.
Yet despite Andrew's exile, Giuffre's Panorama interview is the clearest sign yet that this scandal shows no sign of going away any time soon, leaving the Queen, at 93 years of age, to face one of the most dangerous junctures of her reign.
The stakes are incredibly high: Nothing less than her legacy is on the line.
While Her Majesty has gamely faced many tests and scandals throughout her 67-year reign there has been none quite like this.
"While the marriage fallouts of the '90s were a huge thing at the time, I think that perhaps what's happening now, it doesn't really bear comparison because there were victims in this situation," says Majesty magazine's Managing Editor Joe Little.
"I think matrimonial disputes and divorces are one thing, but where there are such serious allegations about illegal sex with minors, it puts things in a very different level."
More broadly, the Andrew imbroglio has triggered a wave of dissatisfaction with the monarchy. So much so, the very future of the royal family has become an election issue as Britain prepares to go to the polls next week.
The Queen must now find a way to adequately respond to the roiling British mood, and failure to do so could put the royal family jeopardy.
We have seen similar scenarios before. Consider the Aberfan disaster, in which 144 people were killed. Her Majesty didn't visit the distraught Welsh mining town until eight days later, making her appear cold and uncaring (the truth was she was worried that her arrival would hamper rescue efforts).
Ditto, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Queen looked heartless and removed after she initially refused to lower the Buckingham Palace flag to half-mast or return from holiday in Balmoral (though it has subsequently been reported that she stayed in Scotland to care for her grieving grandsons).
The royal family's survival is dependent on public complicity to let them continue occupying their exalted position. While she has long held the top spot as the UK's most admired member of the royal family, Her Majesty's image is now in a precarious position.
She must now be seen to ensure her son does not receive favourable treatment should authorities want to speak to him about Epstein. Letting the image that there is one rule for the public and another for the Windsors would leave the monarchy even more vulnerable to widening public disenfranchisement.
As Patrick Jephson, who was Diana, Princess of Wales' private secretary for seven years, has previously pointed out: "A fickle public mood multiplied by merciless digital media has the capacity to decapitate an unpopular royal family - or family member - as surely as any sharp blade."
The Palace has long feared any moment during which republican sentiment could take hold. In 2017, details of Operation London Bridge, the plan for the days after the Queen's passing was revealed. So too was the fact that royal courtiers are intent on Charles being crowned speedily to deny too much time for antimonarchy feeling to grow.
The lingering, nearly unanswerable question is, what concrete steps can Her Majesty take to quash any brewing resentment?
One option that has been mooted is to strip Andrew of his titles or his styling as His Royal Highness.
Majesty's Joe Little thinks that is unlikely: "Well, it's always possible but it's quite an extreme case and surely things just have to move on quite a pace for that happening."
There is one thing we know for certain: Her Majesty is an adept stateswoman and savvy leader meaning there is every chance she will safely navigate these current, treacherous waters. And when the sad day comes that the Queen does shuffle off the mortal coil, it will be with her legacy and reputation perfectly intact.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and freelance writer with 15 years' experience who has written for some of Australia's best print and digital media brands.