Despite his forced retirement from official royal life, Prince Andrew still holds a key constitutional role in the monarchy as one of a select group of people who can carry out the Queen’s official duties if she is unable to perform them due to illness or absence.
The Duke of York is one of four members of the royal family who serve as the Queen’s Counsellors of State, the people to whom she can temporarily delegate most of her royal responsibilities if needed. By law, the Counsellors of State are the spouse of the monarch, as well as the first four people in the line of succession who are above the age of 21 (or the age of 18, in the case of the heir to the throne) as long as they meet certain requirements such as being a British citizen and living in the UK.
The royal family’s official website lists the Counsellors of State as Prince Charles (first in line), Prince William (second in line), Prince Harry (sixth in line), and Andrew (ninth in line). Before his death, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, also held the position (as all spouses of the sovereign do by law).
A Buckingham Palace spokesperson confirmed Andrew’s current status as a Counsellor of State to BuzzFeed News and noted that the holders of this position are determined by legislation (and thus can only be changed by an act of Parliament). A spokesperson for the prime minister’s office declined to comment.
Andrew remains in his role despite the fallout with his association with the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and his sex abuse case, which he settled out of court earlier this week. The amount Andrew agreed to was reportedly astronomical. Virginia Giuffre, the woman who alleges that she was forced to have sex with him when she was under the age of 18, filed civil charges against him in New York federal court. Andrew neither admitted to nor denied Giuffre’s claims in a letter submitted to the court confirming the settlement arrangement; his one public attempt to explain himself in a 2019 BBC interview was a cataclysmic failure.
Without question, Andrew has proven to be a liability to the monarchy. Polls place him as the most unpopular member of the royal family. And yet, if a crisis should emerge, unless UK politicians choose to act to amend the law, he is also one of its most powerful members.
This issue was brought to the forefront recently during William’s trip to the United Arab Emirates, during which time Charles was self-isolating due to a COVID-19 diagnosis. With Harry in California, Andrew — then extremely embroiled in lawsuit drama — was the only person available to immediately step in if the Queen were unable to carry out her work. However, the Regency Act of 1937 specifies that the duties of Counsellors of State must be exercised “jointly,” in effect codifying that the role must be filled by at least two people.
The Counsellors of State were created by the Regency Act 1937, which was passed by Parliament to codify the process by which the monarch’s duties would be carried out if the king or queen is below the age of 18, incapacitated “by reason of infirmity of mind or body,” or temporarily unable to fulfill their duties due to illness or absence.
A regent is one person who performs royal functions in the name of the monarch if they are younger than 18 or mentally or physically incapable of carrying out the role themself (until they have recovered and doctors have signed off on their health).
However, in the event of a sovereign’s temporary absence from day-to-day royal duties due to a minor illness or a trip outside the UK, Counsellors of State will step in. According to the Regency Act of 1937, the monarch will issue an official written order, or Letters Patent, appointing them to act in her place “in order to prevent delay or difficulty in the despatch of public business.”
“Counsellors of State are authorised to carry out most of the official duties of the Sovereign, for example, attending Privy Council meetings, signing routine documents and receiving the credentials of new ambassadors to the United Kingdom,” the official royal website states. “However, there are a number of core constitutional functions that may not be delegated: commonwealth matters; the dissolving of Parliament, except on Her Majesty’s express instruction; the creation of peers; appointing a prime minister.”
The last time Counsellors of State stood in to temporarily represent the Queen was most likely during her November 2015 trip to Malta.
Although it is within the Queen’s power to instruct her son to cease use of his “Royal Highness” title and to strip him of his honorary military appointments and royal patronages, which she has already done, she can not remove him from this constitutionally mandated role.
It should go without saying that all of this also applies to her grandson Harry, who technically remains a Counsellor of State despite the fact that he is in the same position as Andrew — albeit for very different reasons.