Long live the Queen - or it's Diana

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HOW DID it come to this? How did two spoilt, squabbling, selfish people manage almost to demolish the monarchy? The general view is that it started with the publication of Andrew Morton's book, Diana: Her True Story, in June, but I believe the key event happened a year earlier. The tabloids had been commenting for years on the number of days that the Prince and Princess spent apart and there was a steady trickle of servants' through-the- keyhole stories about domestic tiffs. We now know, thanks to Mr Morton, that most of this tittle-tattle was true, but it was always easily deniable: the marriage may have been a facade but it was a perfectly serviceable one that could have been maintained for the whole of the Waleses' lifetime.

It was Prince Charles, I believe, who blew it, in July 1991. At that stage, the tide of popularity was running all Diana's way. She was busy cultivating her image as a modern saint, visiting Aids patients and hospices, while Prince Charles was moping around at Highgrove, talking to plants. And then he was absent - on one of his mysterious overnight train trips - for Diana's 30th birthday and the tabloids predictably went to town, accusing him of being a neglectful husband.

Apparently he was provoked beyond endurance, and as a result he did something quite unprecedented: he leaked his side of the story to the press by authorising his friends to tell Nigel Dempster that he had offered to throw a party for his wife but she had refused. The resulting Mail front-page headline 'Charles and Diana: cause for concern' led me to comment at the time: 'The thought evoked by the Dempster piece is that Prince Charles may be trying to tarnish his wife's image as a prelude to divorce.'

Diana at this point, I believe, decided to fight back by giving her version of events to Andrew Morton. After his book was published, the marriage was unable to be saved and the Queen and her advisers spent the summer at Balmoral hammering out a formula for separation. The publication of the 'Squidgy' tape in late August may have represented a belated public relations exercise on the Prince's behalf. However, it was agreed that the Waleses must go to Korea in November as planned, so the Palace made an effort to convince the press that the marriage had been repaired. James Whitaker, for one, fell for it and announced 'Charles and Di: no split up' in the Mirror - a headline he must now regret. I remember having lunch with Belinda Harley, Prince Charles's private secretary, at the time, and she painted such a rosy picture of domestic harmony chez the Waleses that I was quite surprised when she refused my offer of a pounds 50 bet on separation within the year. The Korean trip was the predictable disaster, and then came the bombshell of the Camilla tape, which still remains a mystery. (Where did it come from, and why did the Mirror, after all its hype, publish so little of it?)

And now the separation announcement . . . Why now? Why was it rushed forward from the New Year, when it was expected, to this week, and at such speed and short notice that John Major had to cancel an important meeting with Jacques Delors on the brink of the Edinburgh summit? The Palace press office, with its usual airy detachment from reality, claimed it was 'to clarify the position before the children came home' - suggesting the Waleses are such monstrous parents (which I don't believe) that they would rather their sons cried in their school dormitory than in their beds at home.

One theory is that it was brought forward because the Sunday Mirror had obtained a leaked copy of the separation announcement and planned to publish it today. But surely even if it were leaked, all the Palace needed to do was deny it, and then prepare some slightly different announcement for the New Year. In any case, as far as the tabloids were concerned, the Waleses' separation was already a fait accompli - several of them reported that Princess Diana moved her belongings out of Highgrove last weekend.

A more likely explanation is that the Palace got wind that the Spectator was running an article on the separation which, though published on Thursday, must have gone to press on Tuesday. But the real question is not why was the announcement made on Wednesday, but why was it made at all? After all, it is only an interim announcement, with its disingenuous 'no plans' for divorce: far from ending speculation, it seems almost designed to enhance it, especially with its bizarre declaration that Princess Diana could still become Queen.

I wonder if Princess Anne's wedding and the Queen Mother's initial refusal to attend are significant? Did she refuse to attend if the Princess of Wales was going to be there? And did Diana insist on the announcement as the price of staying away? Or is there some shocking new revelation about Charles in the offing? The Evening Standard on Thursday, and the other papers on Friday, claimed that Prince Charles had acquired a new friend called Pammy Jane Farquhar, a 41- year-old mother of three who divorced her husband in September and now lives on the Highgrove estate, and seemed to suggest that Camilla Parker Bowles was only, as it were, the Steve Wyatt or decoy. To complicate things further, Dempster (who is firmly of the Prince's party) claimed in the Mail that Diana is still involved with Major James Hewitt.

Anyway, we are left with the ludicrous situation that if the Queen died tomorrow, we could find Diana crowned Queen, despite the fact that she and Charles are clearly bent on divorce. Diana's position is in any case untenable. She is 31; she has always said she wants more children and yet while she remains married to the heir to the throne, any man who sleeps with her could in theory be hung for treason. The Palace is clearly desperate to placate her, presumably to stop her suing her husband for divorce.

Churchgoers must pray with exceptional fervour today for the good health and longevity of the Queen. Provided she lives as long as her mother, the monarchy can survive. But it looks pretty shaky.