Carry on spending, Ma'am - we're used to it

he allegation last week that the Queen Mother has an overdraft of more than pounds 4m has been a shocking piece of news for some of our friends in the Street of Shame. What? The dear old Queen Mum, half pearly-queen, half fantasy-gran? Until so recently, her appeal was that she was almost one of us, with her bad teeth and her fondness for a tipple and the Gee- gees. Now she has suddenly been cast in the role of the heartless old bat, wallowing in luxury while the rest of us struggle with our mortgages.

The harrowing tale was told by Linda Lee-Potter of Dame Thora Hird having spent three horrendous weeks in a National Health hospital, surrounded by old ladies falling out of bed or wetting themselves. Surely, asked Lee-Potter, if there are oldies in this plight, then the Queen Mother at 99 should be able to keep her spending within her income - which is about pounds 12,365 per week.

We shall pass over why a rich woman like Dame Thora was taking up an NHS bed when she could have afforded to go private. Are we to suppose that an army of disgruntled geriatric patients, ancient tricoteuses are suddenly putting down their knitting and shaking their corky arms in protest against the Queen Mother? Or is it simply that the tabloids have lost faith in their dearest icon? After 99 glorious years, have they finally rumbled her?

The quality shared by great literary geniuses, successful politicians and "stars" is their ability to project self- images on to the world. It is a meaningless question to ask what Byron or Hitler, to choose two obvious examples, were "really like". From the beginning, Elizabeth Bowes- Lyon has been, not a fraud exactly, but someone with a clear image of what the public would like from a Queen Empress in the century of the Common Man. During the abdication crisis, we have been lately told by the historians, she drank champagne and thrilled at the idea that she would soon be the Empress of India. But the public image was of a woman who worried terribly that her poor stammering husband was being "forced" to be king.

Everyone came to believe this myth, even her daughters who refer to "Poor Mummie" - that's how they spell the word - having to wear all those crowns and tiaras when she'd so much rather live a secluded life away from the limelight.

The whole story thereafter was about as plausible as that of the Shy Nursery Nurse of Coleherne Court becoming the Fairy Princess. Bowes-Lyon, like Diana Spencer, knew exactly what The People wanted. One little bomb fell on a remote corner of Buck House during the Blitz, causing a minimum of damage. "Now we can look the East End in the face," she memorably declared. No one seemed to notice, when she made her famous reunion visit there, 50 years on, that she cared so passionately about her friends in the poorer parts of London that she had waited half a century before revisiting them.

Image is all that matters on these occasions, and hitherto Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother has been a consummate controller of her own image. Only once did the mask slip - on a state visit to South Africa in 1947. Hordes of happy children ran to greet her car. Frightened at the little black fingers which reached out for a royal blessing, she rapped them fiercely with her umbrella. But that was one lapse in 70 years of public life. The evidence for gross extravagance and greed was always there, but because they viewed her with the eyes of faith, the newspapers chose to overlook it, even in the years of austerity.

It was another Queen Mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, who upbraided her daughter Marie Antoinette for her overspending in the matter of the Diamond Necklace, which was one of the most potent symbols of heedless ancien regime luxury. "A queen can only degrade herself by this sort of heedless extravagance in difficult times," warned the empress.

Poor Marie Antoinette had image problems. When the unfair rumours of her greed and avarice got out, she was changed overnight from the darling young queen to the putain autrichienne, the Austrian whore.

Our Queen Mother has all the gifts which Marie Antoinette lacked. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon knew from an early age that appearances were all. If she had been the consort of the French monarch in the 1780s, she might well have been stripping the jewellers bare and guzzling the patisseries dry. But the Parisian populace would have derived the impression that she was One of Them. Rather than Let them eat Cake, our Queen Mum would have arranged for the bread delivery van to arrive, ostentatiously empty at the gates of the royal palace. "Now we can look the starving peasantry in the face," she would have sighed. Everyone would have believed her.

Appearances help. Though an aristocrat of the old school, the Queen Mum, with her round face and plump arms, has always looked like one of the homelier domestic servants from Glamis. The Duchess of Windsor nicknamed her Cookie. It would be sad indeed if she goes to her grave as la putain ecossaise just because of a few bad debts.

The figure she brilliantly if bogusly created was a genuinely unifying image: of King and Queen struggling along like the Rest of Us with their ration books and their two boring children. We've outgrown her now. Even the oldies who once loved her are being whipped up into frenzies of envy against her. Poor Queen Elizabeth with her 75 servants to pay for probably has less disposable income than Dame Thora Hird. I for one will be sad if her love affair with the tabloids is over. When Glenda Slagg starts telling the Queen Mum that she has too many servants and too many dinners at the Ritz, it sounds like Goneril and Regan demanding that King Lear cut down on his hundred knights. And we all know where that story ended. She's 99 years old. Oh, reason not the need!