All dressed up - but with nowhere to go

Charles v Edward, Philip v William, and one gaffe after another. These are troubled times for the House of Windsor. What to do?
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The Independent Online

While the Prime Minister leads the nation in the war against terrorism where is the Royal Family? Prince Charles may have offered to use his contacts in the Saudi royal family to help maintain the international coalition, but he does so against a background in which he and his relations are squabbling among themselves, unclear where they are heading or what they stand for, and without the figure of Diana, Princess of Wales to blame for their misfortunes.

A rather lacklustre year for the monarchy has been crowned recently by the furore over Prince William's arrival at St Andrew's University. Even the Royal Family's greatest enemies could not have asked it to mishandle the affair as badly as it did, with accusations flying between Princes Edward, Charles, Philip and William. Other Royals have done little to improve the family's image. Prince Andrew's new role as an ambassador for British business is viewed by many (not least Prince Charles) as a cover for jetting off to exotic golf courses, while pictures of Andrew's sweaty exits from trendy nightclubs have not exactly helped the image of the House of Windsor.

Princess Anne may be dull, but at least she is worthy, which is more than can be said for Sophie Rhys-Jones and her disastrous PR ventures. And the best news about the lesser royals – the Kents, the Gloucesters, the Linleys, the Ogilvys – is that even the likes of Nigel Dempster find less reason to write about their activities these days.

Meanwhile, the Queen Mother has been downgraded, with the BBC abandoning plans to clear the schedules when she dies, and enthusiasm for next year's Golden Jubilee is notable only by its absence; preparations so far have been negligible.

If the Royal Family seems less united and more irrelevant than ever, this is partly down to two factors: the gulf between St James's Palace and Buckingham Palace, and the eclipse of both parties by an increasingly presidential Prime Minister.

Prince Charles helps to occupy the vacuum that is his hereditary role by planning for the future of a slimmed-down monarchy, but his proposals are constantly opposed by the forces of conservatism, led by Prince Philip. Behind the scenes, the private offices of the Queen and the Prince of Wales go their separate ways, barely troubling the hotline that is supposed to keep the two in step.

Hugo Vickers, who writes on Royal matters, thinks Prince Charles is ill-served by his staff: "He is a rather passive figure; he toils and they spin. It seems to me that they are prepared to say anything to boost Charles, whatever the cost to anyone else. What he's doing and what they're doing are often two totally separate things. I think that every now and again he wakes up and realises someone has gone too far, and then he fires that person, as happened to his former Private Secretary Commander Richard Aylard. There are always bound to be difficulties between the monarch and the son, but I'm not sure that some in his office help."

The finger is pointed at Prince Charles's deputy private secretary, Mark Bolland, who is often described as the architect of the strategy to present Charles as a more modern figure and to gain public acceptance of Camilla Parker Bowles. Although this sounds inoffensive, the strategy is carried out with little regard to the sensitivities of Buckingham Palace. "The courtiers there are stuck in a time-warp," says one close to Royal circles. "The Camilla thing still shocks them, but she's non-negotiable as far as Charles is concerned." Buckingham Palace suspicions are also aroused by Bolland's close links to New Labour figures such as Peter Mandelson.

These tensions would exist whatever the colour of the Government. A charismatic, youthful Prime Minister unafraid or unaware of crossing into areas previously reserved for the Royal Family is another matter. "I don't think he's the monarchy's best friend," says Vickers. "There was that business of walking to Westminster, which made the Queen look old-fashioned."

Vickers cites Mr Blair's reception of Bill Clinton in 1997, when the US President failed to make a courtesy visit to the Queen, and to her minimal role at the Dome on the night of the Millennium, as examples of the Prime Minister's presidential style; countries with presidents tend not to have monarchies too. He also points to the anti-monarchists close to Mr Blair, his wife and Alastair Campbell in particular. The story is told that the Queen says of Mrs Blair "I can see her knees stiffening when she spots me" because of her reluctance to curtsey.

Penny Junor, author of Charles: Victim or Villain?, thinks the monarchy can solve the problems. "I think the institution of the monarchy – that is, the Queen, Prince Charles in waiting, and Prince William after that – has seldom been in better shape. The Royal Family is a different matter. The problem is the younger members causing huge irritation by spoiling all the hard work. Prince Charles's view is that they would be better off with just the core members; he is sensitive to criticism and the need to curb expenses." Next month's meeting of the Way Ahead Group, family and key advisers, will see Charles pressing this point, she thinks. "It's likely to be pretty acrimonious, but recent events have strengthened his hand and I think the public is on his side."

Junor and Vickers agree that Mr Blair's style is not a long-term problem. "He won't be Prime Minister for ever," she says, "but the Royal Family will certainly be around for the foreseeable future."

If Charles gets his way and the number of his relatives on the payroll is reduced, the foreseeable future may be a lot longer than many republicans wish.

Additional research by Henrietta Roussoulis