How they came to be so ridiculous

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This column is not a royal-free zone; on the contrary it regards the death throes of the British monarchy as the most interesting story of the last decade. What is striking is the way the public mood has moved inexorably from respect to disrespect to, latterly, ribald hilarity at every fresh Royal disaster. 'Just how much financial advice can a girl take?' hooted the Sun over yet another picture of a topless Fergie cavorting with John Bryan in the pool. Personally I blame Prince Edward. It was he, you might recall, who started the rot by persuading the younger members of the Royal Family to participate in the television game It's a Knockout. As they jostled for attention with the likes of John Travolta and Jane Seymour, they descended, fatally, into showbiz and have never managed to extricate themselves since. Not that Fergie ever wanted to: she was too busy holding out her greedy little paw for every sponsored freebie she could find.

Those like Lord Fawsley who complain of the press's invasion of Fergie's privacy might care to ask themselves: when is she not in privacy? If she cannot be photographed when she is on holiday, it leaves precious few days in the year when she is visible. Or are we paying her pounds 249,000 a year to remain out of sight? That might not be such a bad idea, but it is not how the Civil List money was originally intended. The sight of her 'close protection' officer in the background of the toe-sucking scenes reminded us, if we needed reminding, that even on holiday, Fergie is still costing the taxpayer money. I suppose if she were to perform her public duties for 40 hours a week, 48 weeks of the year, like any other salaried public servant, there might be no need for paparazzi to crawl through the Provencal undergrowth to see what she was up to. The Royals have far more access to privacy than most people - they can and do bury themselves away at Sandringham or Balmoral for weeks on end and even Buckingham Palace, although apparently accessible to every passing vagrant, has not yet been penetrated by the paparazzi corps. But they cannot expect the public to pay them without ever seeing them.

I believe in the end it is money rather than sex that will drag the Royal Family down. People might forgive them living messy private lives if only they wouldn't do it at the taxpayer's expense. Resentment of the Queen's tax-free status goes deep; it was unfortunate to say the least that Forbes magazine moved her up from seventh place to sixth in their league table of the world's richest individuals on the day the topless Fergie pictures were published. According to Nigel Dempster in the Mail, much of the current mess could have been avoided if only the Queen had immediately paid the pounds 4m Fergie demanded as the price for going quietly. Instead, the Queen instructed her courtiers to deal with the matter - a reliable recipe for disaster - and Fergie enlisted John Bryan to fight her corner. Mr Bryan, it now turns out, has been talking to the press every step of the way and all the recent 'friends of Fergie' stories have emanated from him, including the claim that the Palace was so mean with Fergie's household expenses that the poor little Princesses might start to go hungry.

In the end, I don't believe the latest Fergie scandal really changes anything, except that it exposes the Royal Family once again to ridicule. Few people who have followed the story can be surprised to learn that Mr Bryan is more than a financial adviser. The Yorks have already announced their separation and these photographs can only speed the way to divorce. But the question of the Waleses' marriage is far more serious and it is that, I believe, that is being hammered out at Balmoral this summer. Fergie has provided a useful distraction but the big decision is yet to come - and that will really affect the monarchy's chances of survival.

THE Express on Friday debated a question that has bothered me for months - the role of Steve Wyatt in all this. He, you may recall, came to prominence in January when photographs of him and Fergie on holiday were splashed all over the tabloids. The provenance of the photographs was strange enough - they were found on top of a wardrobe in a rented flat - but the bigger mystery was always: who took the photographs? And why? Anyone who has tried to photograph themselves with an automatic timer will know that the game gets very boring very quickly - Wyatt and Fergie might have done it once or twice but not 120 times. So someone was on holiday with them, taking photographs, and leaving them lying about. A usually knowledgeable gossip told me at the time, 'She is having an affair with an American but it is not Steve Wyatt. You want the man behind the camera, not in front.' The Express's Ashley Walton came to the same conclusion: that Steve Wyatt was only a decoy.

AND FINALLY, the burning question: do you suck? Toe-wise I am a virgin and likely to remain so - one glimpse at my gnarled, calloused, horny, yellowing excrescences and any would-be financial advisers would run a mile. Most of my English friends also protest their pedal innocence, but, oddly enough, every foreigner I speak to says sure they suck toes. Indeed, the first toe-sucker I ever heard of was a foreigner, the late Lady Stevens, Hungarian-born wife of the chairman of Express Newspapers, who once gave an interview in which she described the marital tootsie routine. More recently, there was Mr Mellor's Spanish actress and now Fergie's American. Maybe we are the last nation in the world to take up toe-sucking, but I suppose now it has started, it will spread, like the hideous habit of kissing on both cheeks.

I phoned the Society of Chiropodists to ask if toe-sucking was good for business and they said yes indeed - so much so that they were thinking of asking the Duchess of York to become their patron. The spokesman then explained rather anxiously that that was a joke and the society was more than happy with its present patrons. And who might they be? The Queen Mother and Lord Tonypandy, he said. Crumbs] Do they toe-suck? What a mind-boggling thought.