Royals learn to smile again as Blair leaves the republicans in the lurch

 

IT'S been a pretty good week for the House of Windsor, not so hot for Britain's beggars and street dwellers and, from the point of view of Mr Tony Blair's spin doctors, presumably highly successful.

Buckingham Palace managed to maintain a dignified and appropriate silence on Tuesday, as Prince Charles returned from Klosters and the nation prepared to decide whether it wished to retain the monarchy.

Having received the verdict - a 2-1 victory - a palace spokesman broke cover yesterday to say the royals had indeed been amused. The ITV debate, variously described as "riveting television and a "bear garden", had provided entertainment rather than serious debate. But we may be sure the royal household was content with that.

True, the programme asked questions and subjected the royal family to treatment that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. True, nearly a third of the more than 2 million participating in the telephone poll appeared to want a republic. But after the year the Windsors have had, things might have been worse.

Following the divorces of the Waleses and the Yorks, a period of calm, purposeful activity could do much to reinforce royal popularity. Quite how that is to be accomplished, given the evidence of continuing hostility to Prince Charles and Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, is doubtless taxing the best minds in the royal household.

Mr Blair put in a bit of deft footwork yesterday when asked if he would welcome "Queen Camilla". Smiling that best smile, he said he wasn't aware that such a matter was even under discussion. But lest there be any doubt, Mr Blair laid his party's support for the monarchy on the line.

He was probably prudent to do so. Mr Blair, like Mr Major, will have noted that Scotland alone bucked the national trend. The prime minister (that's still Mr Major, by the way) is attempting to build another head of steam over Labour's plans for devolution and constitutional reform.

He'd already charged that a tax raising parliament in Edinburgh would fuel the demand for an independent Scotland. All the more important then that the "New Labour" leader makes it clear that any flirtation with republicanism lies with all the other doctrinal baggage junked along the way to the polling stations.

For all his explanation and clarification, that is precisely the context in which many people this week received Mr Blair's comments about beggars and the homeless.

In his celebrated interview for The Big Issue, Mr Blair confided that he does not give to beggars on the street, backed New York style "zero tolerance" of street crime, and said the basic principle was that "it is right to be intolerant of people homeless on the streets".

In a newspaper article yesterday, Mr Blair insisted that "the visual screaming headlines" had misrepresented his position. His argument had been that they should tackle the problem of crime by not tolerating the petty offences - and "tackle the distinct problem of homelessness by providing the homeless with somewhere to go".

But by then the damage had been done. Roseanna Cunningham, a Scottish National Party MP, likened Mr Blair to "the Bad Samaritan who would pass by on the other side". The Tories accused him of hypocrisy given his criticism of Mr Major over similar remarks about "aggressive begging" two years earlier.

The leader of the opposition, then shadow Home Secretary, had said: "The real criticism . . . is not only its vindictiveness against some who will be genuinely destitute. It is the notion that this is what we should be concentrating on."

That being so, many Labour supporters were left wondering why Mr Blair thinks it an issue worth concentrating on now.