Two of the Cabinet's senior members criticised the Prince of Wales yesterday, saying his views on schools, which emerged during a discrimination case, were old-fashioned, out-dated and wrong.
The first shots was fired by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, who was incensed by comments made by the Prince claiming that "child-centred" education had led to people holding unrealistic ambitions about their likely success in life. Mr Clarke told the Today programme on Radio 4 that the Prince was old-fashioned and out-of-date.
Mr Clarke was supported later by John Reid, the Health Secretary, who said: "I think he [the Prince] is wrong on this one as well. I'm a meritocrat."
Mr Clarke's comments were seized upon by opponents as evidence of a breach of the convention whereby ministers do not criticise the Royal Family. They also sparked urgent communications between Downing Street and the Prince's advisers with both sides trying to defuse the argument. The Prime Minister tried to play down the row at a press conference with the French President, Jacques Chirac, saying: "I am sure if we analyse what each of them has said sufficiently closely there will be some common ground."
The Prince said in an e-mail produced in evidence at an industrial tribunal that too many people believed they could succeed without having the talent or being prepared to work. Mr Clarke advised the Prince to "think carefully" before making utterances on public issues.
In comments to be broadcast on tomorrow night's Morgan and Platell programme on Channel 4, Mr Reid said: "Charles Clarke, who's a much bigger Charles in many ways, has said he thinks the Prince is wrong on this one. I do believe that people get themselves out of disadvantage, that the biggest driving force for social change in this country is people's own ambition."
He added that one thing "typical of all parents" was that "people want a better life for themselves and their kids. That's what they really want and it's that ambition and that aspiration which is the driving force."
The comments privately delighted other ministers - one of whom said: "I was listening to Charles [Clarke] egging him on on the radio. When he put the boot in, I cheered."
Mr Clarke told Today: "I don't want to get in a tangle with the Prince of Wales but, to be quite frank, I think he is very old-fashioned and out of time and doesn't actually understand what is going on in the British education system."
The Prince's views emerged at an industrial tribunal when, in a response to a letter from a member of staff who had asked if there were any prospect of rising through the ranks to top jobs in the Royal Household, he said: "What is it that makes everyone seem to think that they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?
"This is all to do with the learning culture in schools. It is a consequence of a child-centred system which admits no failure and tells people they can all be top pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV presenters or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary effort or having natural abilities."
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