The Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident last Thursday could have been much more serious.
The nine-month-old baby in the car involved in the collision with his Land Rover might have been badly injured, even killed.
True, one of the two women in the car broke her wrist.
Everyone, except perhaps the baby who is too young to have understood what happened, must have suffered shock. But, thank God, a catastrophe was avoided.
And yet over the following days Royal officials and Prince Philip himself have contrived to turn what was a happy escape into a rather discreditable story which, at the very least, will have puzzled some members of the public.
First there was the almost instant delivery to Sandringham of a replacement Land Rover. This somehow conveyed the impression of an unrepentant Prince, who was impatient to take to the road again in a Mr Toad-ish way.
And, indeed, this is exactly what he did. In a way, his wish to go on as though nothing had happened was admirable.
The 97-year-old former war hero and all-round action man was not going to change his ways because of a common-or-garden prang.
Nevertheless, his eagerness to put aside the accident, and continue as before, invited the criticism that he had not considered whether a man of his age should be driving on public roads. agen ceme
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Being photographed at the wheel without a seatbelt 48 hours after a crash was not great PR. Nor was the Queen’s identical lapse a day later.
Probably the worst faux pas was not sending some sort of immediate message of sympathy to the two women in the other car.
It may be that lawyers advised against such an overture on the grounds that an apology implies fault. We can’t be certain the Duke was responsible.
But a simple expression of sorrow doesn’t indicate culpability, and would have been far preferable to what was offered — a message delivered by a police family liaison officer that the Queen and her husband wanted to extend their ‘well-wishes’ to the victims of the crash.
Emma Fairweather — the lady who broke her wrist — was perhaps expecting too much when she told a Sunday newspaper she had been hoping to be telephoned by the Queen.
A bouquet of flowers, accompanied by a hand-written note, should have done the trick.
As a result of all these relatively small, though cumulatively significant, errors, the Queen and Prince Philip have found themselves touched by controversy for the first time in many years, and the subject of criticism.
The oddity is that the Queen normally has such a sure touch, though there have been a couple of striking exceptions.
In 1992, after Windsor Castle had been largely destroyed by a fire, she mistook the public mood by expecting that the Government would cheerfully pay for very costly repairs. Many people did not like this assumption.
There was argument which led to an agreement that she should give up her exemption from income tax.
And then, in 1997, she again misread public sentiment by showing initial reluctance to allow the Union Flag to be flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Although it’s true that the Duke of Edinburgh still commits the occasional gaffe, in recent years they have tended no longer to be offensive, and have provoked much more amusement than opprobrium.
So, until the past few days, the Queen and Prince Philip had for two decades sailed majestically above the storms that have engulfed some less conscientious members of the Royal Family.
Admittedly the row over the Prince’s driving has been less rancorous than the two previous incidents I have mentioned. That said, I have met ardent Royalists over recent days who are aghast at the reaction of the Queen and Prince Philip.
Why shouldn’t they buckle up like the rest of us? We tell our children to do so, and expect to be chided by police, even prosecuted and fined, if we don’t wear seatbelts.
There is a kind of national conversation going on, with many people wondering why the Queen and Prince Philip are not prepared to observe the same laws which everyone else is expected to obey.
Are they aware of the effect of their bloomers? Do their advisers understand? My worry is that if what was mercifully a fairly minor event can spiral out of control so easily, something similar might happen in the future. Is there a failure in the system that needs to be put right?
Royal officials should have advised the Prince not to return to the open road so quickly and, if he had ignored them, urged that he fulfil his lawful duty of wearing a seat belt — the more so as cameras were certain to be pointing at him.
And these same officials should have sprung into action, and acquired a bouquet of gorgeous flowers, to deliver to Emma Fairweather and her friend after the accident, along with a sympathetic note written by the Queen or her husband. Even now, nearly five days after the accident, no such offering has been received.
Either the courtiers were inexcusably sleepy, or they lacked the presence of mind to stand up to Prince Philip and remind him of a few basic rules of public relations — and, indeed, of sensible behaviour and good manners.
It’s said his present crop of advisers lack the worldly acumen and such strength of character as might be respected by the Duke, who is a headstrong and forthright man. Predecessors such as Miles Hunt-Davis, Prince Philip’s private secretary from 1993 until 2010, were not easily brushed aside.
Of course I realise that when things go wrong it’s easy to pin the blame on supposedly deficient courtiers. I can’t be sure that one or two of them did not give the Prince sound advice which was disregarded. But it is surely undeniable that the older we get, the more we are in need of guidance.
And not just from advisers. When I am old and sillier than I am now, I hope my wife and children will do me the service of telling me if I am in danger of making a fool of myself or inadvertently causing harm to others.
I realise his children will probably quail at the thought of spelling out a few home truths to such a domineering father as the Prince has been.
However, there comes a time when even the most fearsome patriarch must be tamed.
It’s true he has withdrawn from public life, and so the scope for embarrassment has been narrowed. And yet, as we have seen, he is still out and about. And the Queen carries out many public duties.
Both of them need and deserve better advice and more support than, to judge by this unfortunate event and its aftermath, they are getting.
The advice should be that although most people do not begrudge the great privileges of the Royal Family, they expect the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to live by the same rules and standards as the rest of us.