John Humphrys: Problems at the Palace... Time for the Tumbrels..?

February 18, 2022, 3:57 PM GMT+0

Buckingham Palace has seen its share of controversy over the years but it’s possible that there’s never been a week quite like the one it has just experienced. One of the most senior members of the royal family has been forced to pay a huge sum to settle a claim of sexual abuse against a young woman. A claim which he and his lawyers had consistently described as baseless. And the heir to the throne himself has been dragged into a serious dispute over allegations that one of his charities promised a knighthood to a Saudi businessman in exchange for a large donation. All this, of course, in the year when the Queen celebrates her platinum jubilee. Inevitably the cries have gone out: time for a change! Do you share that sentiment? Is your support for the monarchy as solid as it has always been or has it been undermined? And if it has... where do we go from here?

The first thing to say about the Duke of York is that he has avoided the worst possible scenario. He will not be standing in the dock of an American court having to deny allegations of sexual assault against Virginia Giuffre, a young woman who was below the age of consent at the time. That must have come as an enormous relief to the Queen. The loyalty of even the most ardent monarchist would surely have been shaken by the sight of the man who was once fourth in line to the throne facing such serious charges. But the way he managed to avoid that court appearance will have brought her little comfort.

Andrew has agreed to pay a huge sum to settle a claim that he and his lawyers had always described as baseless. Ms Giuffre claims she was trafficked by the convicted paedophile, the late Jeffrey Epstein. She alleges that Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell forced her to have sex with the duke on three occasions when she was 17. Even the nation’s most loyal monarchists agree that his reputation has been shattered beyond repair and there can be no question of his return to public life. He must, in effect, spend the rest of his life as a private citizen.

But that has not put an end to this sordid saga. There is no official confirmation of the amount that Andrew will have to pay but it is widely believed to exceed £10 million. The question everyone is asking is: where will he find that sort of money? The obvious answer is from his mother, but that raises further embarrassing questions. There is now great pressure on Buckingham Palace to show that not a penny will be paid from the public purse.

The respected writer AN Wilson added to that pressure with these words: ‘Andrew's gargantuan payment to Miss Roberts will be the moment that the country, at last, rethinks its financial relationship with the royals. How could we do otherwise? This money cannot, can never, be overlooked. We have moved away from worrying whether or not he sweats, whether he ate pizzas in Woking with his children, or danced the night away with someone scarcely older than his daughters. We are no longer even asking whether his story or Virginia's is true. We ask instead: Who bought Virginia's silence? And until the answer is forthcoming, we will continue to ask the vital question: Is the cost of Andrew's legal scrapes and latest splurge of millions - like his extravagant lifestyle, his chalets, his jets, his dodgy friends in America - being borne not by Andrew himself, but at least in large part by the British taxpayer?’

It's not only the media raising questions. Andrew’s lawsuit will be raised in parliament by politicians who say there must be ‘full transparency’ over whether public money will be involved. One Labour MP Andy McDonald said the palace’s silence was a ‘ridiculous position’.

The pressure on Buckingham Palace increased with an announcement from the Metropolitan Police a few days after the Andrew statement. This time it concerned his brother Prince Charles. The police announcement said there will be an investigation into the alleged sale of honours involving those running one of his charities, the Prince's Foundation. It followed the disclosure by the Sunday Times about the Prince’s adviser Michael Fawcett who was trying to raise many millions in donations to the foundation of which he was chief executive. The report said he had promised a Saudi Arabian businessman that he would help him to secure an honorary CBE in return for a large donation. He subsequently offered to help him in his application for a knighthood and British citizenship. Clarence House said Prince Charles had known nothing about the offers and had cut all ties with Mr Fawcett. He resigned as chief executive of the foundation after the letters were published.

All this comes, of course, in the wake of the massive split in the royal family which culminated in Prince Harry and Meghan moving to California and, in the eyes of many, behaving like Tinseltown celebs dishing the dirt on their nearest and dearest for fame and fortune. And it’s feared that there may be much more to come with the publication of Harry’s memoirs later this year.

Inevitably all this has been grist to the mill for those who believe the royal family has long since served its purpose and it is time to replace the monarchy with something rather more democratic. Polly Toynbee led the charge in The Guardian. She declared it a good time for the Queen ‘ to bow out gracefully, as this platinum jubilee celebrates her 70-year reign with all the pomp of a four-day bank holiday’. But Ms Toynbee wants more than the abdication of the Queen. She says it should ‘mark an end to the monarchy itself, those feudal centuries drawing to a peaceful close.’ And she went on: ‘The Queen has held the monarchy together skilfully through tempestuous scandals, from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the divorces of three of her children to the flight of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex... This jubilee would make a cheerful ending to all the royal folderol. What better time to return the sovereignty promised in Brexit to the people to whom it belongs. Elizabeth the Last should get a historic send-off, her golden coach and crown retired and her six palaces opened as fine museums.’

Unsurprising, perhaps, that those sentiments should be expressed in the lefty Guardian, but even the ultra monarchist Daily Mail had a warning for Buckingham Palace. It concluded its leading article on the subject thus: ‘The royal family has been weakened by the reckless conduct of members who lack the Queen's judgment. It may have survived many scandals, but its survival is not guaranteed. If the Queen has been forced to pay Andrew's bills to silence an underage rape victim, it will turn a sordid scandal into a disaster for the monarchy.’

But the monarchy – or at least the man who will be our next monarch – is not without its supporters. The Today programme gave a prime interview slot on Thursday to the writer and broadcaster Jonathon Dimbleby, Prince Charles’ biographer. He said the media coverage of the ‘cash for honours’ affair had been 'frankly bizarre'. He ridiculed claims that the police investigation was a 'bombshell' for the Royal Family. It was instead, he said, a cynical attempt to sell newspapers and he thought it was ‘extraordinarily unlikely’ that Prince Charles knew about Mr Fawcett’s dealings with the Saudi businessman because he was ‘not party to its day-to-day operations’. He added: ‘ I think if he had known, he would have immediately taken action about it. If there has been some scam, some breaking of the law, d’you honestly think that he would have been party to that? It beggars belief.'.

Mr Dimbleby also poured scorn on the notion that there were wider implications for Prince Charles and that this was ‘some sort of annus horribilis because it's linked to his brother's case’. He said: ‘There's no link at all.'

So what do you make of all this? Perhaps you have always been sceptical about the value of the monarchy and are now feeling vindicated. In which case, have you given any thought to the process for replacing our monarchy with a republic? And to who might be our first elected head of state? Or perhaps you are a monarchist who sees all this as no more than a storm that will eventually blow over. Or you may be one of those monarchists who believe that the Queen is irreplaceable and has reservations about the accession of King Charles? Maybe you’d prefer King William. Or President Attenborough?

Let us know what you think.