TIME to cast our minds back to last July. Photographers outside Highgrove, the private residence of Prince Charles and the venue for a party celebrating the 50th birthday of Camilla Parker Bowles, are surprised to find special facilities have been laid on. There's to be none of the usual scrummaging. "If you want to see the main shot, boys, just stay here," the helpful police inspector tells them. It was almost unheard of.

They are more surprises when the main shot approaches, in the form of a Ford Mondeo carrying Mrs Parker Bowles, in a figure-hugging gown. The car slows down to make sure the snappers get a good long look. Around her neck is a diamond and pearl necklace and on her lips is the smile of a woman who senses her time may finally have come.

How long ago it all seems now. At the time, speculation on the subject of a possible marriage between Charles and Camilla was rife. Newspaper polls suggested that public opinion was thawing towards a woman who for some time had played the wicked witch opposite Princess Diana's good fairy

Later in the summer, the pair were due to go on holiday together; then in September would come their first public outing. This was to be at a pounds 100-a-head charity bash on behalf of the National Osteoporosis Society organised by Mrs Parker Bowles. Her mother died of the disease and she is the society's patron. Not exactly competition for the Queen of Hearts, perhaps, but undoubtedly another significant step on the road to acceptance.

It wasn't to be, of course. In a screech of tyres in a Paris underpass, Camilla was once more consigned to the shadows.

But in recent weeks, Mrs Parker Bowles has found herself back in the headlines. Earlier this month, it was revealed that she has been staying at St James's Palace, Charles's London residence. Now comes the revelation that she had been Charles's guest at a weekend party at Sandringham. According to one source, the couple will soon be seen together in public, probably at a charity function. But she will not host any public events on behalf of the National Osteoporosis Society as previously planned.

The most significant date in the resumed rehabilitation of Mrs Parker Bowles will be 14 November, Charles's 50th birthday, when it is likely that a party will be held at Windsor Castle. Undoubtedly Charles would wish to have Camilla on his arm, and he will also want his two sons in attendance. William and Harry have not met Camilla since they were small.

So far, all seems to be going well. There was no outpouring of moral outrage at the news that Camilla had been staying at St James's Palace and newspaper polls show that up to 80 per cent of the public feel Charles should be "forgiven" for his treatment of Diana. So who should take the praise for this public relations success?

Step forward, Peter Mandelson. The fact that he was among the 25 VIP guests at Sandringham was hardly a surprise. Mr Mandelson has subsequently become close to the couple and has lunched with them at Highgrove. Mr Mandelson has also played a major role influencing the discussions by the Way Ahead group - the Royal Family's own think tank - about revolutionising the monarchy.

Whether this will also include the idea of Camilla as Queen Consort is open to debate. The Church has already been softened up regarding a possible marriage. The British people are the problem. It may be a long time before the thousands who mourned Princess Diana are prepared to accept a replacement.