No such thing as a free Toblerone

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The Independent Online
The wrong people are repenting all over the place, while the sinners seem quite unaware that repentance is called for. The new Bishop of Durham committed a sin 26 years ago - I mean, he calls it a sin, and I am only humouring him in this belief - and repented publicly at his enthronement on Saturday.

But this is a man who believes that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our transgressions and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; 26 years of private repentance, for a fumbling fling with a farmer? Just what kind of procrastinating deity is being worshipped here?

How long before the bishop be cleansed of his unrighteousness?

Then there is the Prince of Wales reportedly repenting to friends for having co-operated with Jonathan Dimbleby. Wrong again to repent] It was well worth co-operating with Mr Dimbleby, if only for the irreparable damage it has caused the reputation of Gordonstoun.

The Wales-Dimbleby extracts have been a most useful source of realism and common sense about the monarchy, and they came at just the right time, when the court correspondents were polishing up their nonsense for the Queen's Russian visit, billed ominously as her most important trip abroad since the famous 'slitty eyes' venture into China in 1986.

What egregious nonsense it was, this talk of the Queen helping the Russians to come to terms with their past, helping them to digest the consequences of the assassination of the Romanovs, as if the consequences had not been plain to see before this week. And the Queen 'wishing to meet the ordinary people of Moscow in order to put her own questions to them during her Red Square walkabout' - an ambition the Russian authorities decided to thwart.

But above all, there were the painful attempts to pretend that the Queen had not been snubbed, or not importantly snubbed, by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, when he failed to meet her as expected. No. The Queen had been wronged by Prince Charles. Mr Chernomyrdin was perhaps the victim of some power struggle. Whatever we were to believe, we were not to believe that the Queen had been snubbed. Oh no. Not even if Boris Yeltsin made it plain that the food on Britannia was filthy.

It is the desperate attempt to make people believe the improbable, the desperate striving of the courtiers to distract the nation's attention from the plain facts of the matter, the desperate looking on the bright side that proves in the end so humiliating. Compared with this, the Dimbleby revelations so far (that the Duke of Edinburgh is a nightmare, that the Princess of Wales is a nightmare, that the Royal Family in general think you are odd if you display an interest in Leonardo da Vinci, that Lord Butler was a vain man and a betrayer of confidences) have an invigorating realism.

The Prince has no reason to repent. He is simply being punished by the press for having allowed the story to go in the direction of the Sunday Times. A small lapse of taste there, I agree. But perhaps a venial lapse.

At Westminster, the Tory ministers named by the Guardian are either resigned but unrepentant, or unrepentant and unresigned. Tim Smith, the one who agreed to go, had hardly got his resignation off his chest before he was bouncing back with a self- congratulatory formula: he had made a difficult decision for the sake of the party . . . in order not to embarrass the Prime Minister . . . looking forward to spending more time with his constituents .

. . quiet weekends with wifey . . .

No suggestion that the guy had already done something - let's put it at its mildest - to embarrass his party. No ritual few days of sackcloth. Never a hint of the officer's way out - the quiet room, the bottle of claret and the revolver. It is hard to know which is more offensive: the minister who sees that the game is up but fails entirely to understand why, or the minister who will not see that there is anything at all amiss.

To confine the question to the status of room 356 at the Paris Ritz: Neil Hamilton said that it was the private apartment of Mohamed al- Fayed, and I do not doubt for a moment that that was what he was told: stay in my room, old boy, treat the place as your own, bring wifey, have a good time . . .

As for all the extras, Mr Hamilton is probably one of those people who does not realise there is a charge for the mini-bar. People are like that. They get carried away. They open the packet of cashews and sample a few. They pocket the Toblerone, not realising it is a financial time- bomb primed to explode at the moment of checking out.

But what happens in normal life is that, at some point, the bill, the reckoning, is presented, and they beat their heads with the palm of their hands and say: 'My God, of course, how foolish I was; it was not a free Toblerone after all; and look] they were counting the cashews all along; wow] those were the beers, that was your Martini . . .' And so the past few days of their mini-bar romance pass before their eyes, and they drown in the thick pile of the foyer carpet, and they swear they will never touch a hotel mini-bar again.

This salutary experience, like a cow's first encounter with an electric fence, appears to have passed Mr Hamilton by. The mini-bar bill never came.

The room rate went unremarked. The restaurant meals - what the heck, it was Paris after all. The Hamiltons were having a wonderful time (well-earned, I do not doubt), a sort of second honeymoon, perhaps.

Still the bill has not arrived. You might think that when the whips called Mr Hamilton in the early hours of Thursday morning and gave him what they appeared to have told the press was a bit of a third degree - you might think that that would have been the moment, that he might have smitten his brow with the palm of his hand and said: 'My God, of course, you are right - the Toblerone.'

But Mr Hamilton gives the impression of being a man for whom the Toblerones have yet to come home to roost. The Ritz freebie was just that - free. Any bill for the six days' stay could be only 'a notional transaction for internal accounting purposes'. That is the way he understands it.

Instead of Mr Hamilton, it was Mr Fayed who looked at the Hamiltons' Ritz bill and nearly fainted. Then the Prime Minister nearly fainted. Then about half the Conservative Party nearly fainted (but the other half did not) and began to say that something really ought to be done.

Obviously, it would be convenient if Mr Hamilton were to manage to come up with some kind of act of repentance - but how can that happen unless there is first some kind of epiphany and Mr Hamilton begins to see that there is something (an act of folly, perhaps) to repent for? The clock ticks. The parliamentary party drums its fingers. The epiphany drags its feet. The bill from the Paris Ritz becomes more exorbitant every day.

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