The Queen by Andrew Morton (Michael O’Mara Books, £20.00)

As past history has shown, Andrew Morton and royalty are a potentially explosive mix. However, it is unlikely that his latest work, a biography of the Queen timed for Jubilee publication, will provoke the kind of controversy that greeted his notorious biography of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In one sense, writing the biography of a living sovereign is a pointless exercise. For the serious biographer, there is no access to state papers, palace archives or the multiplicity of other sources available to anyone writing about Queen Victoria or Edward VII. Indeed, because of the delayed drip-feed of archival material released for public scrutiny, year by year, papers relating to the closing years of Elizabeth II’s reign will only come on stream 120 years after her accession.

Andrew Morton gets around the problem by drawing comprehensively on every memoir or biographical writing that sheds any light on the life of the Queen. He does so with the aplomb of an experienced journalist so that a cut-and-paste exercise sometimes reads as authoritatively as if he had enjoyed access to insider information to the same degree as in his biography of Princess Diana.

Of course, he does have sources after a career that has involved much royal-watching; it is just that, on the present occasion, their revelations are, inevitably, less than sensational. Disclosures that, in a Diana context, would have been highly charged are much more anodyne.

When Morton recounts how the Queen, in her “Annus Horribilis”, with two of her sons’ marriages collapsing and Windsor Castle damaged by fire, felt that she was losing control, he adds: “Staff also noticed that her modest consumption of alcohol — she enjoys a dry Martini in the evening — had noticeably increased.”

We’ll take that as two Martinis, then. It is hardly likely that Morton’s vague terminology is meant to be interpreted as the monarch hitting the bottle: it is an example of how a writer’s ignorance, in any detail, of what occurred can be made to sound dramatic. Morton is forced to adopt such ambiguity because of the thinness of his information. Yet he overcomes that disadvantage adroitly. By highlighting an occasional minor detail, gleaned either from an informant or some printed source, he manages to put a first-hand gloss on third-hand accounts.

That is a journalist’s skill, and it is to Morton’s credit that he does so fairly seamlessly. Overall, he has managed to pull together, mainly from published sources, a fairly comprehensive and coherent chronicle of the life and reign of Elizabeth II. The reader will probably enjoy it but will glean few original insights. Some people might think that is no bad thing that Andrew Morton has afforded the public quite enough original insights into the lives of the royal family for one career.

The Queen’s refusal to forgive “Crawfie”, her former governess, for writing about the lives of the young princesses seems at odds with the many times she has forgiven other offenders — the Duke of York and the Duchess of Cornwall, to name but two. However, the Queen explicitly asked Marion Crawford not to write about her experiences: “I do feel, most definitely, that you should not write and sign articles about the children, as people in positions of confidence with us must be utterly oyster.”

Her defiance of this royal command understandably put the ex-governess beyond the pale. The worst damage done to the royal family, by its own members, has arisen from their failure to be “utterly oyster”. The Prince of Wales’ confession of adultery, followed by his wife’s devastating riposte; the Duke of York’s car-crash interview on Newsnight; and the Duke of Sussex giving Oprah Winfrey the benefit of his newly acquired American West Coast psychobabble were all disastrous for the monarchy.

It is a failure of reticence that dates back to the decision to ignore Bagehot’s admonition against letting daylight in on the magic by cooperating in the making of the documentary Royal Family, later aggravated by the cringeworthy It’s a Royal Knockout. Unfortunately, the signs are that this tendency is continuing, with all the potential danger to the monarchy that implies.

Even the Duke of Cambridge, in most respects a model prince, is showing an inclination to indulge in self-revelation, relating to his activities on behalf of mental health causes; like his father, he is increasingly engaged in climate activism, which seemed a safe preoccupation when he started, but which is fast becoming political and symbolic of elitist oppression of energy consumers. His preference for informality is likewise a slippery slope. Britain does not want a bicycle-clip monarchy.

The frustrating thing is that the royal family has, close at hand, the perfect role model in the Queen herself. Nobody knows her private views about anything, which is a powerful part of her mystique. It must also have been a considerable hindrance to Andrew Morton when he set about the task of writing her biography. He has done so, inevitably within limitations, reasonably successfully.

There are some really good stories, such as former Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Eric Milligan’s, revelation that when he watched the 1998 World Cup match between England and Argentina on television at Holyroodhouse with the Queen, she was so excited she had to leave the room for the penalty shoot-out, which England lost.

It is fair to say that readers may feel, after reading this book, that they know the Queen just a little bit better. If that is the case, it will be an achievement on Andrew Morton’s part to have brought one of the most enigmatic individuals in the world into even slightly finer focus.