Out of touch, out of control: how Harry's joke backfired on royalty

Stupid boy. A two-line apology should do it. How wrong Prince Charles, his press secretary and his younger son proved to be. Stupid Harry may have been, but at 20 he is no boy and his 'poor choice of costume' at a friend's fancy-dress party not only provoked outrage and headlines around the world, but is exposing the widening gulf between the Royal Family and modern reality. By Francis Elliott
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It was 11.15pm by the time that Paddy Harverson, the Prince of Wales's press secretary, finally arrived at an Italian restaurant near the Chelsea football ground at Stamford Bridge. He had arranged to have a post-match meal with senior officials at his former employers, Manchester United, on Wednesday night.

It was 11.15pm by the time that Paddy Harverson, the Prince of Wales's press secretary, finally arrived at an Italian restaurant near the Chelsea football ground at Stamford Bridge. He had arranged to have a post-match meal with senior officials at his former employers, Manchester United, on Wednesday night.

Given the size of the scandal about to rock Prince Charles's household, friends say Mr Harverson was remarkably relaxed as he took his seat at Lucio, on the Fulham Road. "He told us briefly what had happened, and that was it. It wasn't like it was just another day in the office but his mobile wasn't going ballistic. By then it must have seemed the crisis was over," said a friend.

In fact, those hours were to prove to be only a period of calm before the real storm blew in as the world woke up to The Sun's front page and its photograph of Prince Harry, drink and cigarette in hand, casually sporting the uniform of Rommel's Afrika Korps, complete with swastika.

Prince Charles, in Birkhall, on the Balmoral Estate, had agreed a two-line apology to be issued in the name of the young Prince and, seemingly similarly convinced that it would be an end to the affair, had returned to his extended winter holiday.

By Thursday morning it had become clear to others that the fall-out from "Harry the Nazi" was as big a problem as the Royal Family have faced in recent years.

With Britain entering a crucial phase in its bid for the Olympic Games, the global embarrassment could hardly have been more acute. From Germany to Israel, from America to France, the front pages expressed dismay at this image of modern British youth as sybaritic and insouciant pretend-fascists.

Still, neither Clarence House nor Buckingham Palace had caught up with the public mood. There is, says a family friend, a curious inability to recognise the gravity of Harry's increasingly wayward behaviour.

"They don't get it - even in private the Clarence House lot say that Harry's OK. But he's not, and everybody who really knows him knows that.

"The thing is, Harry's not a kid any more. He's been allowed to get away with an awful lot because people's image of him is somehow stuck in his teen years. They think he's a stupid kid - he's not, he's an adult," says a friend of the Royal Family who has watched in despair as the Prince has outgrown his minders.

"When he was a minor, what would happen is that a butler would see something, he would tip off a policeman, who would tip off the office and one of the press secretaries would phone him up and remonstrate."

Key figures in "Harry control" were spokeswomen Sandy Henney and Colleen Harris. Mrs Henney, whose husband is a senior officer in the police Royal Protection Unit, had a formidable intelligence network while Ms Harris was "a very strong mother figure". A call from either was usually enough to bring an erring Prince back into line.

No longer. The invitation to the "colonials and natives" party at Richard Meade's equestrian centre might itself have raised eyebrows if Ms Harris had still been employed by the Prince of Wales, not least because the former spokeswoman is black.

As it was, the invitation to the party was eagerly accepted. The two Princes and Harry's friend Guy Pelly, 22, set off from Highgrove to a fancy dress shop in a nearby village with no alarm bells ringing.

Arriving at Cotswolds Costumes (make-up and wigs also supplied), the three young men set about choosing their garb. "I believe William asked about a Zulu costume but we didn't have any," the shopkeeper, Maud Franklin, told a tabloid reporter. William evidently was determined to be a "native" and settled instead on a collection of leopard skins. Harry, meanwhile, was sizing up the colonial options, and particularly a fetching SS uniform. It was too small for the Prince, who lit instead on the now infamous desert kit worn by General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Still the alarm bells stayed silent. And as Charles holidayed in Birkhall with Camilla Parker Bowles, the Princes, together with the ubiquitous Pelly, crunched up the drive towards the marquee erected in Mr Meade's well-appointed horse-riding establishment near the village of West Littleton last Saturday - and into a public relations firestorm.

There is, apparently, deep consternation this weekend among Harry's set about what happened next. Not, as one might imagine, over his stupidity but over which of the 250 guests of Richard and "Tiddles" Meade sold the infamous picture to The Sun for a reported £10,000. Harry's "set", closely allied to the Beaufort Hunt, is causing considerable alarm to those seeking to steer the monarchy into some sort of modernity.

Commentators have repeatedly asked why it was that neither Harry nor William could see how monstrously offensive many would find the sight of the third-in-line to the British throne wearing Nazi insignia.

It is not as if Harry is unaware of the Holocaust. A spokesman for Eton has confirmed that Harry studied for a history GSCE and covered the topic. "It would be difficult to go through that syllabus without touching on the Holocaust," said a spokesman for the OCR examination board, used by Eton.

A person who knows the Princes well says that the real reason why they chose the outfits that they did was because they thought them amusing. "There has been this attempt to portray them as symbols of modern Britain, with charity work and so on, which just makes people who actually know them laugh. They are part of a social scene that thinks racism and bigotry quite funny."

One man definitely not laughing on Thursday morning was Michael Howard, the Tory leader whose grandmother died in a Polish death camp and whose aunt survived a gas chamber three times.

Mr Howard's intervention - calling for a personal, public apology from the Prince - caught perfectly the need for a greater display of contrition than the well-worn lines of regret "if I have caused offence" that Clarence House thought would be sufficient. His call was taken up enthusiastically by the Daily Mail the next day. "Come out and say sorry properly!" screamed the tabloid, along with many others.

It was Prince Charles who came out on Friday - but not to say sorry. He toured the damp and dispossessed of the Carlisle floods but he refused to say anything about his son.

This was, according to both current and former courtiers, a grave mistake. Again Mr Harverson and Prince Charles had thought they had done enough by co-operating with The Sun. The day after its scoop the newspaper was comprehensively briefed about how the Prince of Wales had "hit the roof" over the affair. "The pair of them are well and truly in the royal doghouse," the paper was told. Trips to Auschwitz, a viewing of Schindler's List and, for Harry, a private session with Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, had been ordered by Prince Charles.

When it became clear that the press strategy was failing to stem the tide of criticism, the Prince of Wales angrily let it be know he wasn't going to let his son be "pilloried".

The Queen, meanwhile, is keeping out of the furore. A senior aide at Buckingham Palace admitted that it was a "boil that needs lancing" but insisted that the monarch wasn't about to tell her son what to do.

Tony Blair and other senior government ministers have also been desperate to keep out of the row - despite the growing evidence of the damage it has caused to Britain's image abroad.

The royal image-makers spent years trying to present the Princes as icons of modern Britain. As they outgrow their minders, however, the fiction is becoming impossible to maintain. Products of their class and their upbringing, they are instead reminders of Britain's past.


Prince Charles

Stayed on holiday in Scotland with his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, as media storm unfolded

Prince William

Wanted to go to party as a Zulu, but had to settle for leopard skins and black stockings as he chose the 'native' option

Paddy Harverson

Took over toughest job in PR a year ago. Has had his worst week as story ran out of control

Jonathan Sacks

The Chief Rabbi has offered to give Harry a tutorial on the horrors of the Holocaust

Michael Howard

With relatives who suffered in Holocaust, has stuck to his guns demanding proper apology

Colleen Harris

Last effective member of 'Harry control', the senior aides who could pull Prince into line