Debate finds MPs at a loss

The Royal Family is debating a new role, but just who will pay the piper - and call the tune?
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It's one of the last great political taboos. Politicians find debating the future of the Royal Family about as comfortable as discussing BSE over Sunday lunch.

The Labour Party in particular considers it a very touchy subject. When prospective parliamentary candidate Paul Richards recently published his Fabian pamphlet - gently suggesting referendums on keeping the Monarchy - you could almost hear the sound of falling furniture as Labour spin doctors ran to their phones to distance the party from such heretical views.

Frontbenchers have fared little better. The shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, was forced to apologise for daring to suggest that Prince Charles may not be entirely fit to be king.

Even leadership favourite Mo Mowlam was subjected to reverse spin-doctoring two years ago when she proposed a purpose-built "People's Palace" for the Royals, leaving Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace to the nation. And Jack Straw was criticised in the House by the normally mild-mannered Stephen Dorrell for positing a Scandanavian-style monarchy.

Tony Blair has gone out of his way to make it clear that even a constitutionally reforming Labour Party perceives a central role for the Queen.

The political wisdom among Labour ranks, largely unchallenged, is that the "ordinary" people love the Royals and even hinting that the expense, embarrassment and anachronism of the House of Windsor may be worth reforming is electoral suicide.

Labour backbencher Lynne Jones, who would like to see a referendum on the role of the monarchy at the end of the Queen's reign, feels politicians are too cautious."It is amazing that we don't discuss this issue," she says. "The politicians are behind the public on this - it's not something people are unwilling to discuss."

Indeed, like Dr Jones, Rotherham's Labour MP, Denis MacShane, sees a role for a streamlined monarchy which could still carry out formal and ceremonial functions."I would much rather someone like Princess Anne coming up here to open a new Sunday school. In other countries you'd get some plonker of an MP doing it."