Charles finds grassroots support in the subsiding storm

The Prince of Wales's morning routine has been the subject of exceptional scrutiny in recent days. From the lightly buttered toast to the angle of his teaspoon, no aspect of his private life has apparently been beyond examination.

Today as he wakes on his 55th birthday he may reflect that despite the controversial decision that outed him as the senior royal behind unspecified allegations, the worst of the headlines are behind him.

Yesterday it was business as usual on his first full day of public duties since the claims were aired. The engagements could not have been better chosen to reflect the concerns that the Prince has made his own. A morning at Guy's and St Thomas' hospital, praising patient-friendly hospital make-overs; an afternoon at the School of Army Aviation in Hampshire, where he tried out an Apache helicopter simulator; and, in between, lunch at the Royal Academy to talk about small-scale farming. At the Academy, it was just like the best of the old times. His loyal subjects formed neat rows and waited patiently, some sipping from flasks of hot tea, others eating foil-wrapped sandwiches. The Prince emerged from his car with a tentative smile, and his army of loyal fans sprang into action. "We should clap him, poor man," shouted a flushed middle-aged lady. "I think he deserves our support after all he's been through," chipped in another.

Dozens had crowded the forecourt to greet the Prince and express their support as he arrived to launch a guide to small food producers. Speaking as president of Business in the Community, Prince Charles appealed to people to support local farmers by buying local produce. He said that Britain was rapidly losing what was left of its "local culture.

"When we finally wake up and find it is all gone, you cannot just reinvent it and grow it in yet another test-tube," he said. "It is a living, delicate organism that has to be nurtured." This was vintage Prince Charles, the same Prince who decried the National Gallery extension as a "monstrous carbuncle", who oversaw his "model" village, Poundbury, in Dorset.

For Anne Chamberlain and her husband, John, their presence outside the Royal Academy was an opportunity to show that the allegations had not dented their support. "His private life should be no one's business but his own," said Mrs Chamberlain, a 55-year-old graphic designer from Yorkshire. "He is a good man underneath, you can tell."

So has the gamble of his private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, paid off? It is just a week since Sir Michael read a statement on television in effect disclosing that the allegation about an unidentified member of the Royal Family applied to Prince Charles and that it was "totally untrue" and "ludicrous".

The specifics of the allegation were covered by a court injunction, leaving Sir Michael, and the media, to conjure with absurd formulations of the kind that headed one London-based American correspondent's report: "Whatever it was, he didn't do it."

At the time, with the Prince of Wales abroad, Sir Michael's intervention, from a stiff chair beside a bare table and a cold fireplace, was widely ridiculed. The first principle of PR, that the bad news should be got out fast, was judged not to apply. The consensus was that it had ignited new speculation just as the old speculation had begun to die.

This was certainly the effect until the Saturday and Sunday papers had had their say. The court injunction is still in force, but it was possible to read between the lines and fathom out something of what the allegation was about. Interestingly, the Palace and Clarence House did nothing to suppress a separate report that Sir Michael had called his predecessor, Mark Bolland, to ask an extraordinarily direct question about the Prince's sexuality.

With that, much of the mystery surrounding the allegation evaporated. On his return on Monday, Prince Charles himself quashed the final rumour: that he would appear on television to plead his innocence. He would treat "the allegation" as too absurd even to deny.

Many judged that Prince Charles would have been saved much embarrassment if Clar-ence House had followed this course throughout. In fact, the opposite may apply. The media frenzy was probably provoked as much by the injunction as by the allegation. Nothing excites journalists more than information that someone wants us not to know or publish.

Making clear in general what and whom "the allegation" was about stemmed public curiosity and posed two new questions: was it likely to be true, and if it was, did it matter? The response of the Prince's audiences yesterday and the absence of any new reference to "the allegation" in reports of yesterday's engagements suggest that the answer to both questions is "No".

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