Who needs who as Mr Blair and the Queen get together

Her majesty is well able to fight spin with spin when threatened
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The Independent Culture
TONY AND Cherie Blair, arriving back from spending the bank holiday in Balmoral, will not have the depressing prospect of dirty shirts and crumpled evening dresses to worry about. In these straitened times for the nation's aristocracy, the Queen's Scottish retreat remains one of the few stately homes where even the guests' underwear is laundered and tissue-packed by staff ready for the journey home.

For Queen Victoria, Balmoral was "this dear paradise", a rave which moved Lytton Strachey, the Ben Elton of his day, to debunk the place for its tartan cosiness and excess of stags' heads. It struck him as "depressingly German", a kitsch-romantic rendition of Scottish country life, and thus it has remained ever since - the ideal backdrop to the BBC's Sixties documentary which gave the British public its first glimpse of the Family

But Balmoral is now more of an illusion than ever. It suggests ease and permanence at a time when the Royal Family is anxious and in flux. Forbidding grey-stone walls set among the lusciously tended acres of hunting land repel prying eyes. It is in Scotland, but hardly of it. Dinner is always at 8.15 prompt, in full evening dress.

How much the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Minister (even that possessive pronoun is starting to look archaic) has changed in the past year is betrayed by the fact that Mr Blair felt able to insist on changing the usual date for Downing Street's call on Balmoral to the anniversary weekend of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Queen obviously felt unable to deny him his request, although subsequent leaks from the palace to the effect that he was asked to stay away from yesterday's post-church walkabout indicate that Her Majesty is well capable of fighting spin with spin when she feels that the head of government might be straying onto her patch.

But the balance of influence over the Royal Family has shifted quite clearly away from the palace advisers towards the extensive and interconnected cast of New Labour image makers. From the moment Mr Blair crowned Diana as the "People's Princess", it was clear that his government saw the future of the Crown as his business and that he intended to have a strong guiding hand in it. The Royal Family's script this last year has been written by New Labour, the style of rapprochement with a suspicious public modelled on the Labour Party's journey back from the wilderness to a position of near unassailability at Westminster.

Inheriting New Labour's public relations strategies means that the Royal Family runs the danger of apeing its weaknesses. A lurking threat to Mr Blair's authority is his tendency to be, in the damning Geordie phrase for attention-seekers, "anything for a big apple" - at the centre of events however trivial or transient. The Queen's frank admission on the day of England's decisive World Cup match that she could not watch it because she had a dinner engagement that night was followed, bemusingly, by daft stories of her on the edge of her seat announcing that she was "not amused" by the result of the penalty shoot-out.

Beyond this cross-pollenation of spin techniques and fears on the part of jealous defenders of the royal prerogative that Mr Blair is muscling in on royalty's business, lurks the really important question, namely why Mr Blair should be so concerned with the future survival of the monarchy that he is prepared to bail out the family from its self-made misery.

The cynical answer is that he has fallen thrall to the strange, abiding glamour of royalty and sacrificed his radical reforming instincts to the innately conservative task of preserving the monarchy. But it is unlikely that Mr Blair's cool head has been turned by his contacts with royalty.

Ask not what Mr Blair can do for the monarchy, but what the monarchy can do for Mr Blair. Before he arrived in Balmoral, the Prime Minister was attending to his least favourite, but increasingly urgent business of shoring up support for the Union in Scotland in the face of a hungry Scottish National Party. He is keenly aware that having presided over Scottish devolution, he could well end up as the first name in the history books under United Kingdom, breaking up of. It is not an epitaph that he wishes to court.

It is precisely at times of change and reshuffling of powers that a single, uniting, non-political symbol is needed: one able to rise above spats over fiscal transfers and inevitable rows about the powers of the Scottish assembly versus the power of Westminster. The Royal Family is being steadily recast in this role and will be glad to accept it if it guarantees its survival into the millennium. Indeed, the Buckingham Palace website already embraces this fate with its mission-statement: "The monarchy is a focus for national unity symbolising the permanence of the nation."

The Crown can only be sustained if it is seen to respond to the changes brought about by devolution and to represent the continuation of a single United Kingdom identity, whose variety is to be expressed by greater self- government of its parts. Next week's publication of the pamphlet by the think-tank Demos on the future of the Royal Family will conclude that merely continuing the public relations revamp of the last year will not make its future more secure and that its constitutional functions should be reassessed. That is probably right.

Yet another, more pressing change is called for - an end to the principle that the monarch rules until death. The most effective modernisation the Queen could make would be to accept that the end of the century should see the crown pass to her eldest son while he is still young enough to be a bold and imaginative sovereign.

In a modernised monarchy, there should be no shame in retirement. That is not a suggestion likely to have been voiced by Mr Blair to his royal host as at Balmoral. But it must have crossed both their minds.