The Sketch: How to tackle Prince Charles and lose

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The Independent Online

You don't ask what an oak tree is for, oak trees just are. That was Hayek's defence of conservatism. There are occasions - fewer than we might have hoped - when it's a helpful guide to life. The Public Accounts Committee may have provided us with a case in point when it examined the financial arrangements between the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster on the one hand and the Prince of Wales on the other.

The arrangements have been in place since the reign of Edward III and have created a capital base of £463m. In any modern context of accountability, it is completely indefensible, yet it works perfectly well.

Whatever the cost of the Prince, he wastes very much less than the Government. The Prince is the largest, single multi-purpose charity in the country, his finance director told us, and he voluntarily pays income tax. That piece of information seemed to stun committee members. A silence descended on them. Perhaps they'd never heard the words spoken out loud (they do sound very odd).

"It's like he's winning the lottery every year!" Alan Williams complained poignantly. The major-general type who runs the Prince's finances suggested the £12m-odd was a proper return from his estates, and that roused Mr Williams. He told us that, if 450 of his constituents were rounded up and put in a village hall, their collective income would come to less than that (it's true: it's very hard making decent money in a small hall).

Mr Williams went on sublimely: "We're not getting anywhere because you don't realise how these sums are perceived by normal people." Not since Kali Mountford asked the governor of the Bank of England what he was going to do for her constituents has there been such a collectable stupidity.

A couple of members tried to nail the accountants on the nature of some £14m transfer. They were so easily defeated and so quick to profess their inability with accounting terms you had to wonder how they got on to a committee with the words Public Accounts so prominently on the letterhead.

European Commissioner Peter Mandelson appeared in front of the Development Committee. He is immensely grand now (it quite suits him). He has studied the Wizard of Oz, I think, and has come up with a brilliant persona: it's the character that should have emerged from behind the veil. Almost omniscient, almost omnipotent, and omnipresent if his schedule requires it. He is impassive, and judicious, and disengaged. At the end of his answer he puts his half-moon glasses back on his face like closing the lid of a box.

He may have risen to his level. He may be in exactly the right, rarefied atmosphere. Maybe now his strange and highly specialised abilities are in an environment where they might, for once, prosper. The trading fate of the Third World is in his hands, so we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best.