A marriage made in the tabloids

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THEY HAD been close for a long time, he insisted, trying to persuade doubting journalists that their relationship - unlike other recent casualties in the same exalted circles - was made to last. He admitted things had been difficult in the past, revealing himself to be perfectly well aware of the rumours which have cast doubt on his long-term intentions. On Wednesday, though, he spoke in glowing terms about the relationship, describing how well they worked together as a team. "I know that conflict will always make more headlines than partnership," he declared to reporters, "but this partnership is built to last."

Tony loves Gordon, then, no doubt about that, but what about the other big romance of the week? Can Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones defy the odds and stay together in spite of the dire example set by the prince's brothers and elder sister? Frankly, I neither know nor care, which seems at first sight to place me in a curmudgeonly minority. The Sun broke the news of the impending engagement on Wednesday with a special supplement, driving real stories - such as the lack of hospital beds to treat flu victims - down the running-order even of serious current affairs programmes. Royal correspondents were wheeled out, many of them falling into that suspect category, the man or woman who "has met Prince Edward/Sophie Rhys- Jones on many occasions" - and appears to know almost nothing about either of them.

These authorities assured us, among other pieces of mind-boggling trivia, that Ms Rhys-Jones has a good sense of humour. I suppose a GSOH, as it is known in lonely-hearts columns, will come in handy if she ever finds herself single again, like Fergie or the late Princess Diana. In the Evening Standard, Lesley Garner suggested that "the normal first reaction on hearing that an eligible young couple are about to be married is to clap one's hands cheerfully and cry 'how wonderful'," inadvertently recalling J M Barrie's advice to children in Peter Pan on how to prevent Tinkerbell from expiring: "Do you believe in fairies? If you believe clap your hands!" The prince and princess will live happily ever after, children, as long as we all pretend to believe in happy endings.

I cannot help inquiring, at this point, what happened to that torrent of republican sentiment which nearly brought down the monarchy in September 1997. Remember the crowds in the streets, the so-called floral revolution, the assurances that nothing would ever be the same again? Last week, I heard several experts observe that Ms Rhys-Jones would not make the same mistake as Diana and Fergie, marrying into an antiquated dynasty and outshining their dull husbands, but had shown herself willing to take a back seat. Some of them were already referring to her as "Princess Edward", suggesting not just that things are back to normal chez Windsor but that they have regressed since the death of the Princess of Wales.

It is a sad fact that predictions of the imminent demise of the monarchy - and, by the way, of the Conservative party, of which similar things are now being said - tend to be wishful thinking. Of course the institution has been damaged by the scandals of recent years, but its instinct for survival should never be under-estimated. What broke out after Diana's death was the kind of factional feuding, this time Windsors versus Spencers, which takes place whenever the monarchy needs to update itself. The crowds were not against monarchy per se, but had decided they did not like its current representatives, the Queen and Prince Charles, as much as the Princess they had unexpectedly lost.

The response to Prince Edward's engagement demonstrates once again how little the Queen and her family had to do to redeem themselves, at least in the gullible eyes of the popular press. Make the announcement a bit more low-key, have the wedding in Windsor, not London, make sure the bride-to-be gets to work on time next morning - er, that's it. Editors' brains turned to porridge as they rushed out special editions - "The Royal Engagement: see pages 2,3,4, 5 & 7" - and hacks departed en masse for la-la land. The one piece of comfort I take from all this is that I have yet to meet anyone who admits to being remotely interested in Prince Edward or his fiancee, other than to make scurrilous remarks about his sexuality or her resemblance to Princess Diana.

It seems possible that the media have got it wrong again, as they did when they suggested in the late summer of 1997 that the entire nation was in mourning. The country is not tired of the monarchy and all its works, not yet, but neither is everyone gripped by royal wedding fever over the forthcoming nuptials of a 31-year-old man and his Sloaney girlfriend.

Put it like this: if my business was manufacturing tea-towels, I would not rush to put the happy couple's faces on my products. If Tony and Gordon were to announce a summer wedding, on the other hand, that would be quite another matter...

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