The royal Peat bog
Published in: Daily Mail
The Prince of Wales has flown back from his tour of India and Oman into the very eye of the storm. The claim made by his former servant George Smith about the Prince's private life is now circulating on the internet, in the Scottish, Irish and Italian press and around the world.
The Prince himself is said to be relaxed, on the basis that the allegation is a lie and that he has nothing to hide or fear. The problem is that he has not told us what the allegation actually is.
Last week, his senior aide Sir Michael Peat made a complete ass of himself when he announced that whatever the Prince was said to have done with a member of his staff, he didn't do it.
In saying this, Sir Michael thus poured a tanker of fuel onto the very flames he was trying to put out. For everyone was left wondering what on earth this alleged incident actually was.
Now it is only a matter of time before the substance of Mr Smith's allegation seeps into the mainstream media across Britain.The only people who seem not to have grasped this are the royal household. Their handling of this whole imbroglio has been lamentable from the start.
They should have realised that openness was the best policy. Whatever uproar this would have provoked in the short term, they would have been in control of events. As it is, they have been wrongfooted at every stage, locking themselves into the grotesque cycle of manipulation and prurient speculation.
The impact of the allegations lies principally in their capacity to blackmail the Prince of Wales. This was obvious from the start, when Princess Diana visited Mr Smith and recorded him making his two explosive charges: that he had been raped by a royal servant, and that Prince Charles had been involved in an incident with a royal servant.
The Princess made the tape, it is said, as 'insurance' against any moves by Buckingham Palace to take her sons away from her. In other words, had such a move materialised she would have threatened to destroy her ex-husband's reputation.
In the face of this sordid piece of manipulation, the Royals panicked. It was their desperation to find this tape, which had gone missing from the late Princess's possessions, that was the real reason for the cack-handed prosecution of the former butler Paul Burrell.
Rather than launching such an obviously flaky court case, the Royals should have openly faced down the blackmail. Prince Charles should have said what these allegations were, that they were the product of a troubled mind, and that they were untrue. There would have been a brief furore, and then it would have been over.
Instead, the royal household ignored the rumours that were steadily gaining currency. Then - disastrously - when the former royal servant Michael Fawcett obtained an injunction against the press, the Prince's solicitors backed this up with a letter demanding that Mr Smith's claims should not be published.
More than anything, this gave the impression that there was something to hide, and provoked the ensuing feeding frenzy.
For sure, none of us can know whether or not these claims are true. But it is hard to envisage a more unreliable witness than Mr Smith. Not only has he suffered from mental illness and alcoholism - appallingly, Princess Diana reportedly plied him with drink before he made his claims to her -- but he has admitted to making two quite separate false claims of rape.
He lied about these, he said, because he had been drinking heavily and wanted to be admitted to hospital. He also made several claims that he had been threatened and attacked by a hooded gunman, but the police found no evidence at all to back this up.
Of course, people suffering from mental illness can nevertheless be telling the truth, just as people who are paid by the press to go public with their claims do not necessarily embroider events. Nevertheless, people might reasonably conclude that such outlandish claims, made by someone with this highly dubious history, are inherently suspect.
The strenuous attempts to suppress them was a principal reason why they gained such traction. But that wasn't all. The apparently endless flow of disloyal backstairs claims about the Wales's private lives -- not to mention the eye-opening revelation of the regular sale of gifts received by the Prince -- has helped create the sour impression that any claims about his household are believable.
In addition, his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles continues to offend, reviving popular disapproval that he cheated on his wife and reinforcing the willingness to believe any rumours about such an openly irregular private life.
Royal advisers do very well out of working for Prince Charles, which looks very good on their CVs. He is surely entitled to expect a rather better standard of service from them.
For despite all this agony, they are still getting it wrong. To cope with the current crisis, the Prince's friends are now being wheeled into public to make the case that he is a national treasure.
I have not been approached by anyone from any side in this affair. Nevertheless, I do admire the work the Prince does. He is a tireless promoter of charities and other good causes; he has pioneered imaginative schemes for disadvantaged inner-city youth, who adore him; he has forced insular business people to connect with those on the wrong side of the tracks; he has given voice to the voiceless in promoting issues of general concern, such as education standards. He is the embodiment of public service.
But I also believe that --like the Princess Royal - he should allow these good deeds to speak for themselves. For one of the things that has so poisoned the atmosphere is that he has played the same game as Princess Diana's rival armed camp, allowing his supporters to brief both openly and anonymously about his virtues, and to put the boot into the other side.
The Prince of Wales doesn't run for office. The current mess does not imperil the monarchy; nor does it argue for the inheritance to go straight to Prince William. But mud sticks; and the enormous service Prince Charles performs for his country is in danger of being permanently tarnished.
What he should do now is tell people what the allegation about him is, and say convincingly that it is untrue. He should do this on television. Those who say he should remain aloof from the fray miss -- as ever - the point. Just as the Queen averted an incipient revolt after the death of Diana by addressing the nation, so it is only Prince Charles himself who can now lance this particular boil.
Having been thus open with the British people, he should then put his house in order. In particular, his courtiers and friends should no longer be authorised to talk about him. He should disband his armed faction, and trust the public to judge him instead on his public service. He needs to find --and hold -- his nerve. Only then will he rescue his good name, and restore some much needed discretion and dignity to the royal firm.