Is he cut out for kingship?: Charles's problem is not the Church, but his own mother's success, says Richard Tomlinson

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IT IS a clerical conceit that the Church matters to the monarchy. On Tuesday it was the turn of the Archdeacon of York, the Venerable George Austin, to ask how, if the Prince of Wales had broken his marriage vows in the company of Camilla Parker Bowles, he could possibly be trusted to observe his coronation oath.

In December 1936 it was another Yorkshire cleric, the Bishop of Bradford, who wondered aloud whether Edward VIII, Charles's great-uncle, was conscious of the need to show 'faith, prayer and dedication' at his forthcoming coronation. 'We hope,' the bishop said, 'that he is aware of this need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.'

'The storm breaks,' the royal acquaintance Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary, when the national press used the bishop's remarks to bring 'the King's affair' - his relationship with Mrs Simpson - to the British public's attention. Ten days later Edward abdicated, and the Church could congratulate itself that the monarchy's position as a moral exemplar had been restored.

'Strange and sad it is,' the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, told the nation a few days after the abdication, 'that he (the King) should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standard and way of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people.' But the former subjects of the Duke of Windsor (as he had become) did not take kindly to Lang's unctuous radio broadcast. The wit Gerald Bullett, in a poem that circulated by word of mouth, reflected most people's view of the meddling archbishop.

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are]

And when your man is down how bold you are]

Of charity how oddly scant you are]

How Lang, O Lord, how full of Cantuar]

The Archdeacon of York's remarks this week are even further from the point than the views of Cosmo Lang. It is the Church that is in danger of being detached from the monarchy, rather than the other way round; and for reasons that have nothing to do with Charles's alleged affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. At a time when fewer than 3 per cent of Charles's future subjects in England are practising Anglicans, the very idea of an established church seems anachronistic.

Indeed the coronation vows that trouble the Archdeacon so much may no longer exist when Charles, or William, is eventually crowned. The Archdeacon's boss, the Archbishop of York, has accepted that any future coronation ceremony will need to reflect the ecumenical spirit of the times.

By laying a false trail, the Venerable George Austin has also diverted attention from the two most interesting questions about Charles: first, has his private conduct undermined his chances of becoming King in the eyes of the public; and second, if he becomes King, does he possess the qualities necessary to perform the job?

On the first question, the example of Edward VIII is instructive. 'When you abdicated,' his brother, George VI, wrote to the Duke of Windsor in 1949, 'you accepted the view of the great majority of your subjects that your intended wife was not the right person to be Queen Consort.' George was wrong to think that his elder brother ever accepted this view; but he was right that Edward VIII's subjects would not have tolerated a twice-divorced American as his Queen.

Camilla Parker Bowles is still married, and is not American; but if Charles is serious about becoming King, which his staff insist is the case, he will not tempt providence by taking her as his second wife. Accepting that limitation, however, the precedents for Charles are encouraging. As Prince of Wales, Charles's great-great-grandfather (to become Edward VII), was called as a witness in a divorce case and later became mired in a gambling scandal. His liaisons with a string of society hostesses, 'actresses' and common prostitutes were well known to the wider public, as the many ribald songs and jokes which circulated about 'Bertie' testify.

Yet from being a rather unloved heir to the throne, Bertie became a much-loved King, with his cigars, his penchant for dressing up, and his avuncular manner. Nor did Bertie reform his morals: the last royal maitresse en titre of his life was Mrs Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles.

The example of Edward VII is a reminder that Charles has time on his side: as heir to the throne, he has the weight of centuries to support his case as future King. The fact that past Princes of Wales have led far more dissolute lives and still claimed their inheritance indicates a powerful popular taboo against breaking the line of descent.

It is once Charles becomes King that he runs the risk of undermining his own and perhaps the monarchy's position. For he lacks the qualities that have allowed his mother to rival her great-grandmother Victoria as a national symbol.

First, he lacks her bureaucratic self-discipline. 'She never bloody lets you down,' says a former senior adviser. 'She's available every single morning, she'll call you in the afternoon if there's a problem, she'll even call you at home in the evening if something is worrying her.'

A former member of Charles's household says by contrast: 'I'm sure the Queen works a jolly sight harder at the papers than he would want to do as King. He's not a paper man. He doesn't like paper - he had no staff training, you see. He's an action man.'

Charles's possible aversion to the daily constitutional grind is less of a problem for the British state than it is for the monarchy. If Elizabeth declined to 'do' the red boxes with her legendary diligence, the wheels of government would still roll. If John Major's Tuesday audiences at Buckingham Palace were terminated, he would still run the country. Elizabeth could even refuse to attend the State Opening of Parliament - following the example set by Victoria - and the Government would merely publish the Queen's Speech in her absence.

These symbolic rites matter to the monarchy, not the state, because they are proof of its central position in the constitution. Elizabeth fills a vacuum with her royal presence that would otherwise be occupied by nameless politicians and civil servants. Single-handedly, she gives substance to the illusion that the monarchy matters to good government; and on the evidence so far, it is not clear that Charles has the stamina or inclination to fulfil these largely self-imposed duties.

The Queen's appeal is based still more powerfully on her activities as head of the nation, recorded in the small print of the court circular - for instance on 19 May this year, when she visited the Elderly Persons' Pop-In Club at the Hull Red Cross Centre. Here, too, Charles's track record is variable. On a good day, Charles can put in a performance; but his attitude to these engagements is different from that of his mother, the consummate professional. At the end of a busy round of royal duties in the West Country, where he was received everywhere by welcoming crowds, an associate congratulated the Prince on his popular success. Charles shot him a chilly look and said disdainfully, 'I was only doing my duty.'

It was the remark of someone who sees royal duty as a means to an end, promoting the causes closest to his heart, not as an end in itself.

As a constitutional monarch, Elizabeth has remained scrupulously impartial. But she nevertheless has her own political agenda: the survival of the monarchy. It is to this end that she trudges around the less enchanting corners of her kingdom, meeting her people, only to be faced on her return to palace base by those ubiquitous red boxes.

Charles has two further handicaps in pursuing this political goal, beyond the basic difference in his temperament. One is partly his creation; the death of the myth of a Royal Family, which until very recently seemed fundamental to the monarchy's appeal. The other has always been beyond his power to influence. Like Victoria, Elizabeth has become the cliche to which all royalty aspires, a legend in her own lifetime. And the legend of her reign will die with her.

Much has been made of Charles's long march as Prince of Wales. From his and the monarchy's point of view, it may be a blessing that his own reign - if his mother lives to her mother's age - will be brief.

Richard Tomlinson's book about the monarchy, 'Divine Right: the Inglorious Survival of British Royalty', is published next year by Little, Brown.

(Photograph omitted)