COMMENT by Daniela Elser of news.com.au
In early December, the Queen invited the 29 Nato leaders to Buckingham Palace to toast the 70th anniversary of the military alliance with a few glasses of sparkling and (I'm guessing) some superior finger sandwiches.
To mark the occasion, the gaggle of presidents and prime ministers posed with Her Majesty for a class photo of sorts. It was a sea of navy blue suits with one tiny mint-green-clad monarch wedged in the middle.
It is an image that projects incredible power: Here is the Queen, a 93-year-old great-grandmother who might be the only person in the world who can get Donald Trump to sit still for several minutes and not fire off a tweet. After all, she has met 11 of the past 12 presidents of the United States and worked with 14 British prime ministers and has been at the very heart of the global, political elite for nearly seven decades.
But this year, that aura of supreme authority and steely command was quietly shattered.
This year has been her annus horribilis 2.0 by any measure, with the royal family buffeted by scandal after scandal.
Things got off to a rocky start when Prince Philip decided to take his Land Rover for a spin in January and crashed into another car carrying two women and a nine-month-old baby boy.
Then, for much of the year, reports swirled that the Cambridges and Sussexes were feuding, with Harry and Meghan breaking away from the Royal Foundation to set up their own charity arm (expect the launch of Sussex Royal to be a seriously big deal when it debuts in the northern spring/summer in 2020).
Next up, the perpetual Sussex media maelstrom that dominated headlines: Meghan's New York baby shower, the renovation of Frogmore Cottage, the Duchess of Sussex's controversial Wimbledon jaunt, and Archie's contentious christening to name a few (plus, there was that whole private jet contretemps when the Duke of Sussex was accused of hypocrisy for publicly talking about climate change and then dashing about the Mediterranean on gas-guzzling five-figure flights).
During all of which a picture started to emerge of the royal family as deeply fractured. Increasingly, Harry and Meghan seemed to be operating in something of a silo, seemingly isolated from the wider Windsor clan. In October, when they both spoke to ITV's Tom Bradby for a documentary about their barnstorming South Africa tour, Meghan's comments about she and husband Prince Harry "surviving" royal life gave the impression that their existence was increasingly detached from the wider family.
Lastly, the Prince Andrew disaster was in a history-making league of its own. For months the burgeoning scandal over his former friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein simmered away before boiling over after his calamitous BBC interview in November. The result: He was forced to ignominiously step away from official duties.
The overall image is of a family in disarray. The Palace's responses to this series of damaging events has proven lacklustre at best, and members of the Windsor clan have all seemingly just merrily done what they wanted with little collaboration or co-ordination.
While outwardly the picture might be the Queen sitting at the top of the pile, the big boss of the HRHs, this year revealed the perhaps surprising truth – she has for decades ceded much of her power behind the scenes to her husband. Since her union with Prince Philip in 1947, the Queen has subscribed to a view of marriage and family life that is distinctly of that age. That is, the man is in charge.
"In his role as head of the family – 'the natural state of things' in the view of Elizabeth II — (Philip) enforced the rules," biographer Sally Bedell Smith has written.
Elsewhere, Bedell Smith has described Philip as a "blunt instrument", and when Prince Charles was 20 years old, he was asked whether the Duke had been a tough disciplinarian and whether he had been told "to sit down and shut up". Charles answered without hesitation: "The whole time, yes."
Time and again throughout the '80s and '90s as the royal family was rocked by a series of scandals (Affairs! Divorces! Toe-sucking!), the person calling other members to account and brusquely corralling the wayward members was, you guessed it, Prince Philip. He has, for decades, been the disciplinarian of the Windsors and the key figure of authority.
(Sometimes that role involved a gentler hand too. As the Wales marriage fractured, Philip penned letters to Diana, Princess of Wales. In one he wrote, "I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind leaving you for Camilla," signing the letter "Fondest, Pa.")
Royal biographers say it is no coincidence this year, during which the 98-year-old has been sequestered away, enjoying his retirement at Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate, has devolved the way it has.
Though his influence is still felt – Prince Charles met with his father soon after arriving back in the UK after his South Pacific tour last month to discuss the Andrew fiasco, which is telling – that steady hand keeping competing interests, courts and agendas in line has clearly been lacking of late.
As the year draws to a close, the family ructions and PR disasters of 2019 have reportedly affected the Queen. Speaking to Vanity Fair in December, a royal source said: "It has been a very difficult time behind the scenes, and morale is at a bit of a low."
It would seem that while Her Majesty might be able to keep Trump in check with nothing more than her steely gaze, sadly, the same cannot be said for her family.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years' experience working with a number of leading Australian titles