1992 was not a sterling year for the royal family. Princess Anne divorced Mark Phillips. Prince Andrew separated from Sarah Ferguson, who would soon be caught in a topless-photo scandal. Princess Diana helped Andrew Morton write a tell-all about the state of her marriage, then saw her intimate “Squidgygate” phone conversations with James Gilbey published throughout the media, and separated from Prince Charles. And on top of everything else, in a wanton act of overcooked symbolism, Windsor Castle caught fire.

In a speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, the Queen notoriously referred to 1992 as her “annus horribilis.” And yet, given her family’s newfound insistence on buggering everything up at every possible turn, you can’t help but wonder whether Her Majesty still feels the same way. If 1992 was an annus horribilis, then 2020 is shaping up to be a right old annus cacas for her.

First, we had the Prince Andrew mess. Dogged by rumors of sex with under-age women and transformed into a laughing stock thanks to his catastrophic television interview with Emily Maitlis, Andrew was quietly forced out of his public duties two months ago. And now the sands have shifted yet again. Last week, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their decision to leave the family of their own accord, blowing an almighty hole in the side of the monarchy in the process.

A quick recap: On January 8, Harry and Meghan used Instagram to announce that they were about to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family” by moving to Canada and seeking financial independence. Within moments, it became clear that this was news to the royal family themselves, because Buckingham Palace fired out its own counter-statement, essentially asking everyone to cool their jets a little. With the Queen reportedly distressed by Harry’s sudden urge to leave her side, a summit was set up at Sandringham to hash out the details of the split. Would Prince Harry and his wife retain their titles? What duties would he still perform? Would he still be spending taxpayers’ money in his pursuit of independence?

Another statement, released in the wake of the summit, revealed that the answer to all these questions was a solid “maybe.” Full of woolly talk about complexity and transition periods, it offered no real solution to the problem. And this could be because both sides of the argument have their fingers hovering over two different nuclear options.

Harry and Meghan’s key piece of leverage is thought to be a threat of a televised, warts-and-all interview in which they would accuse the royal family of sexism and racism. The royals, meanwhile, could retaliate by trying to cut off Harry’s potential revenue streams.

A key bone of contention is the couple’s new Web site, Sussex Royal. Designed by the same company that built The Tig—Meghan’s former Web site, from when her primary ambition was to become a sub-Goop blogger—Sussex Royal is notable for having the same name that the couple is seeking a global trademark for, for a potential line of clothing and printed material. The royal family is understood to be wary of such an endeavor. One Buckingham Palace insider hinted at the tension behind the negotiations by telling the Daily Mail that such overt influencer-style branding of hoodies and whatnot would be unwelcome. “No one wants to see the Sussexes’ name on a tub of margarine,” the source said.

Another issue is Harry and Meghan’s choice of Canada as a home. The couple spent their Christmas at a $14 million Vancouver Island mansion, but it wasn’t particularly clear whether they paid to stay there, or who even owns the place. Some reports suggested that it may have belonged to a controversial Russian billionaire, but this has yet to be confirmed. Experts have also questioned whether Harry could ever achieve permanent residency in Canada, since applicants usually require specialized skills or a high level of education, and Harry only left school with a pair of middling A-levels.

And that’s even assuming they’re welcome in Canada in the first place. There is a growing backlash to the notion that the country should be saddled with the couple’s security costs, and an editorial in The Globe and Mail, the national newspaper, on Monday urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to deny them resident status, signing off with the uncompromisingly blunt line “Canada is not a halfway house for anyone looking to get out of Britain while remaining a royal.” This reaction must be a painful reminder to Harry that, Commonwealth or not, there is only limited cachet in being sixth in line to the throne of an angry little island in the North Atlantic.

“Hey, Wills, wouldn’t it be cool to plunge over the edge?” Harry and William in Canada, at Niagara Falls, in 1991.

Could things get any worse? On Wednesday, it appeared that they could. It has been revealed that Thomas Markle—the Ghost of Christmas Past, who unfailingly rears up to tell the world how his daughter abandons him whenever she happens to attract a sizable cluster of headlines—is now likely to testify against Meghan as part of her lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday.

Last year, Meghan sued the paper for breach of copyright and infringement of privacy after it published a handwritten letter she had sent to her father. In response to the lawsuit, having claimed that she was orchestrating a smear campaign against him in the American press, Thomas reportedly gave lawyers access to several unseen text messages sent to and from Meghan in the days before her wedding. Unless a settlement is reached, all this dirty laundry will soon be aired in full view of the public. You can imagine that it is the very last thing anyone within the monarchy wants.

The amazing thing about the whole Megxit kerfuffle is that it only seems to reinforce everyone’s position on the royal family, no matter what that position happens to be. If you’re Team Meghan, then it’s clear that a woman whose only crime was to marry for love has been forced out of the country by a viciously sexist and racist media. If you’re Team Royal, then Meghan remains a kind of Extreme Yoko: a woman who married for personal gain before brainwashing a happy prince into abandoning his friends and then his family. There is no in between, no middle ground. And neither side of the argument is particularly great for the Queen.

For decades now, the royal family has operated on a policy of Never Complain, Never Explain. The job—their entire purpose as humans, in fact—is to be mysterious and aloof and removed from the grubby commoners they deign to rule. The Queen herself never gives anything away. She is a marvel of studied blankness, even going so far as to scowl her way through the explosion of joy that was the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. She is so poker-faced that an entire cottage industry has sprung up around people who analyze her outfits for hidden hints of her true intentions. She is so uniformly stern that a GIF of her pointing at a cow and gleefully yelling the word “Cow!” repeatedly goes viral, purely because we’re so unused to what her face looks like when her mouth curls upward at the sides.

But subsequent generations have failed to abide by this policy. Harry and Meghan whining about how difficult it is to live in the lap of public-funded luxury manages to achieve the rare feat of complaining and explaining at the same time. And whether it’s intentional or not, their dash for Canada has unleashed a wave of speculation about what the royal family is actually for.

There’s no denying that Queen Elizabeth’s reign is much closer to the end than the beginning. She’s 93 years old now, with an infirm husband and a restless country to look after. When she dies, it will cause a nationwide meditation on the purpose of the royals. The danger is that, by leaving the rarefied orbit he was born into, Prince Harry will cheapen the monarchy by simply becoming just another money-grubbing arriviste. And the very last thing the world needs is more money-grubbing celebrities. We have reality shows for that now. And a White House. You can become a celebrity by being quite good at Instagram. Last year, an eight-year-old boy made $26 million by playing with toys on YouTube. Why do we need Prince Harry when we have him?

The success of the royal family relies on a collective suspension of disbelief. Their profile might be unearned, but it’s part of the national fabric. And when members start falling from the family like lice from a dog, we have no choice but to question what their purpose is. This, you suspect, is the real reason why Queen Elizabeth has been so quick to attend to this problem. Reaching an agreement and moving on means the family can close ranks again. The monarchy is a leaky boat, and the last thing it needs is to let in any more water.

These are unprecedented times. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But still, if Harry and Meghan’s bid for Sussex Royal–branded independence can teach us anything, it’s that, deep down, all royals really want is to be more like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Stuart Heritage is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL