Royals find Blair `too familiar'

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The Independent Online
A PICTURE of the Queen with a pink-haired punk at Buckingham Palace earlier this year was bizarre enough. But what was more extraordinary still was the background to the photograph. There, hovering behind the monarch's shoulder, was Tony Blair. The Prime Minister, fresh from a reception with Noel Gallagher at Downing Street, was on hand to introduce Her Majesty to Cool Britannia. And there, by amazing coincidence, was a perfect example in the shape of the student from Sir Paul McCartney's fame school.

The picture, used on the front pages of all the tabloids, spoke volumes about the Government's uneasy relationship with the monarchy. The Royal Family appears intrigued by Labour's successful reinvention of itself, yet it is uncomfortable with the "rebranding" process. In the same way, Labour is both fascinated and horrified by the Royals. It is not surprising that Demos, the think-tank headed by Geoff Mulgan, a Downing Street adviser, should turn its attention to reform of the monarchy.

After Diana's death, the Windsors did not know how to react. Then they sought advice from Mr Blair, the man who had described her, with an advertising copywriter's skill, as the "People's Princess". Within days, the Queen appeared on television to broadcast to the nation. Downing Street advisers were despatched to sit on the committee arranging the funeral and, as the "People's Monarchy" began to be knocked into shape, members of the public were invited to the funeral. The relationship appeared so productive that Prince Charles invited Peter Mandelson, the man who "rebranded" the Labour Party, to Sandringham for the weekend to discuss the future of Britain and, perhaps, the reinvention of the monarchy.

As Blairism began to have an impact on royal life, Britannia was decommissioned, the rules on curtseying were relaxed, the Queen decreed that Royal daughters should be given equal rights to inherit the throne, and a "spin doctor", Simon Lewis, was hired. On the anniversary of the Paris crash last week, Buckingham Palace even deployed Blairite humility, acknowledging that there were lessons to be learnt, and now even the Court Circular may be redesigned. It was a direct response to private polls by MORI for the Royal Family, which found that it was seen as distant, wasteful, poor value for money, and badly advised.

The Queen used her speech on her Golden Wedding anniversary to draw comparisons between the hereditary monarchy and an elected government. While the consent of the people is shown for the Prime Minister through the ballot box, she said, "for us, a royal family, the message is often harder to read, obscured as it can be by deference, rhetoric, or the conflicting attitudes of public opinion". "But," she continued, "read it we must."

The Royal Family may be "on message" but the Palace's patience with New Labour is beginning to wear thin. Members of the "inner circle" began to complain earlier this year that the Government was becoming a little "too familiar". They grumbled about Mr Blair's high-profile appearance at the Golden Wedding anniversary celebrations; they moaned about the attempt to "Blairise" the Royals. The courtiers finally snapped when Mr Blair turned down a summons to Balmoral, asking to come instead in the week of the anniversary of Diana's death. His impertinence was, unusually, leaked to the press, along with stories that he had been asked to take a back seat during the anniversary itself.

Downing Street has taken the hint and now speaks in a more respectful tone. "The Prime Minister is an ardent supporter of the monarchy," a spokesman insisted last week. "He thinks the monarchy has been reforming but does not see the need to change the situation as it is."

But Labour's attitude to the Royal Family is complicated. The party, which wants to remove voting rights from hereditary peers, is instinctively uneasy with the concept of a monarchy in which titles are passed down through the generations. Several members of the Cabinet - including John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister - would like to see Britain turned into a republic. Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales, has said that he does not think Prince Charles should succeed to the throne. "The only problem is, who would we get to be President?" one Cabinet minister said last week. "It would be worse than looking for candidates for Mayor of London."

In opposition, even Blairite ministers called for the Royal Family to be reformed. Jack Straw once proposed "a much tighter and more limited constitutional monarchy"; Mo Mowlam said that Buckingham Palace should be sold and turned into a "People's Palace"; and Gordon Brown floated the idea that the Royal Family should pay inheritance tax.

Ministers maintain silence in public, but back-benchers are more outspoken. Paul Flynn, the MP for Newport West, is writing a novel set in 2020, in which Britain has become a republic because its two princes did not want to be King. "I think a republic will come," he said. "We do need a head of state removed from the political process but there is a growing feeling, particularly among the young, that the Royals are of little or no relevance above a soap opera and that their lifestyle is indefensible."

Like all MPs, Mr Flynn has to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. But he prefaces it by muttering under his breath the words: "As a convinced republican I say under protest..." He is not the only Labour back-bencher to do so. But these dissidents have little hope of persuading their leaders, who are starting to feel rather at home with the comforts of Balmoral and Sandringham.