THE MORE sharp-sighted of the Prince of Wales's companions on his trip to Korea last year witnessed some extraordinary behaviour from a local businessman. Seconds after shaking the Prince's hand at the international trade fair, he turned to his neighbour, an Englishman with whom he had been negotiating for months, and signed a contract worth several million pounds.
'Excitement at meeting the Prince,' explained onlookers.
This was tangible proof, the Prince would argue, of the contribution he has made to British trade. According to an article in Monday's Financial Times, the Prince is seeking to emphasise his role, calling upon the Government to be more supportive of his trips abroad as a cultural and commercial ambassador.
According to Buckingham Palace, the reaction to the article - from the media, industrialists, even some ministers - was a 'a gross misinterpretation of the facts'.
'The Prince was merely seeking to emphasise the importance of a role he has been enacting for the past 20 or 30 years,' explained his private secretary, Commander Richard Aylard. 'He never said that he sought a new role in boosting industry or indicated that he wished to take on more foreign trips. . . . It has all been completely twisted.'
Nevertheless, industrialists and businessmen throughout the country were pleased by what they saw as a change in the Prince's business policy. 'We have never had an ambassador with such prominence as the Prince of Wales before,' said the Institute of Directors.
The ill-defined nature of the Prince's role is much to blame for such confusion. Earlier this week he complained: 'People ignore what I do day in and day out.' So what is it, precisely, that he does?
Sifting through the Prince's public engagements reveals that no two weeks are the same; sometimes he is busy five days out of seven; sometimes only two. His public engagements revolve around his Duchy (Cornwall), his charities (the Prince's Trust, The Prince's Youth Business Trust, the Business Leaders' Forum); his Institute of Architecture; various 'business in the community' sessions; environment meetings; and his cultural interests such as Royal Shakespeare Company meetings (he is the RSC's patron) and chamber group concerts.
Occasionally he deputises for the Queen, if she is unwell or abroad, in his role as Counsellor of State; there is the odd reception for the diplomatic corps and, very occasionally, a regional visit.
He is not the hardest working Royal - his workload is only about a quarter of the Princess Royal's - but he holds a respectable third position, roughly on a par with Prince Edward and the Princess of Wales, who tends to work less regularly and in sharp bursts. He also avoids the soft options, such as Prince Andrew's 15 June engagement: 'opening of Turnberry Golf Course'.
There is the occasional official meeting with the Prime Minister, but otherwise it seems that the Prince prefers chatting with Mr Major's overseas counterparts. His itinerary over the past year, which involved 14 trips abroad, included meetings with Chancellor Kohl and President Lech Walesa. He spent 10 days skiing in March and had two weeks' holiday with his sons in August.
Taking the official list at face value, then, it would seem that the Prince is a reasonably busy man, occupied mainly with riding, albeit for the country's benefit, his personal hobby horses. It hardly seems that he is, as Commander Aylard puts it, 'developing as many interests as possible, to prepare him for when he is King and less able to get about'.
In fact, the official list hides what those closest to him know to be the Prince's real lifestyle. Last week, for example, it appeared that he had a relatively easy time, shooting with friends at Sandringham, the only official engagements interrupting the unofficial holiday being two university functions in Cambridge on Monday and a Buckingham Palace reception for the diplomatic corps next day.
Yet a brief chat with Tom Shebeer, director of the Prince's Trust, the charity set up to help disadvantaged young people, revealed that he was on his way to Sandringham that afternoon for a business meeting - unofficially. It subsequently transpired that the whole week was taken up with meetings, either in preparation for future tours - he is off to Australia and New Zealand early next year - or to devise new strategies for all of his charities.
A spokesman for the Princes' Youth Business Trust said the Prince was personally responsible for dreaming up nearly all their innovations: not an easy task, since all his schemes need to be seen to benefiting the country, yet not to come into conflict with red tape or party politics.
There is virtually daily liaison between Whitehall and wherever the Prince happens to be. 'He carries on working, even on holiday at Balmoral,' says his press secretary, Alan Percival. 'He reads all the state papers and Foreign Office dispatches daily. If he writes a speech, he shows it, out of courtesy, to the appropriate minister before making it, and they send it back with extra information if necessary.'
Indeed, the Prince's relationship with the Government is much closer than he cares to publicise. He often pops in to see ministers - Gillian Shephard and Chris Patten were regulars - to lobby them. Following his official visit in March to see Chancellor Kohl, where, as far as the media were concerned, the highlight consisted of his receipt of a German ecology award, he and the Chancellor had a long and serious conversation about anti- German feeling in Britain. As soon as he returned, the Prince wrote to the Prime Minister outlining the details of the conversation, and received a letter of thanks and congratulations from 10 Downing Street.
That this was not revealed at the time is testimony to the Prince's awareness of the political delicacy of his role; just as, being the monarch, he cannot be seen to be a wheeler-dealer businessman.
What the Prince contributes, whether abroad or in this country, seems, as in the episode in Korea, coincidental. 'I couldn't pinpoint a business venture that owed its success to the Prince,' said Commander Aylard. 'The evidence can only be anecdotal.'
Even those on the Prince's recent trip to the Gulf states and Jordan are reluctant to attribute the successful pounds 120m deal between John Brown Engineering and Ibn Zahr Plastics to his influence. 'Of course, his presence helped to speed things up,' says one, 'and he did bring together all the essential groups which might not otherwise have met. But it had been in the pipeline for ages.'
The Prince may be frustrated by the personally restrictive nature of his role: that he may not, however, depart from it is highlighted by the itinerary of his proposed visit to Australia.
In a nation pondering republicanism, it would be tactless of him to combine, directly, his visit with that of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, who will be there at the same time. 'He has been invited by the Australian government in his capacity as the future sovereign,' said Commander Aylard. 'Though his visit may help those out there touting for business, there are limitations on what he can and can be perceived to do.'
If, as has been indicated, the Prince wants more focus on his positive value to the country, rather than a pat on the back for leaving matters beyond his jurisdiction to others, then perhaps he needs to let the public into his confidence a little more.
There was, after all, a hint of bitterness among organisers at this year's annual gathering of the Prince's Trust at Caister in Norfolk when, surrounded by television cameras and international paparazzi, the singer Phil Collins publicly welcomed the Prince. Cameras were poised for a dramatic juxtaposition of Prince and pop star . . . perhaps, the audience wondered, he might even treat them to a drum performance, like the previous year. It never came. The Prince merely took the microphone and started to talk.
Andrew Davies on Francis Urquhart, page 19
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