Camilla Parker Bowles does not play the press as skilfully as Princess Diana did, but she seems to be slowly winning hearts and minds, writes Lynne O'Donnell in London
As Camilla Parker Bowles prepares for her formal entry into the ranks of Britain's royal family, the memory of her predecessor is casting a long shadow over public acceptance of the woman who will (even if not in name) assume the role of queen when Prince Charles accedes to the throne. But after a long and stealthy public relations exercise aimed at winning support for Parker Bowles's "non- negotiable" presence at Charles's side, the final barriers to approval look set to fall before the couple's happiness in each other's company.
"Love has conquered all," said yesterday's editorial in the Sun, a tabloid owned by republican media magnate Rupert Murdoch that made a great effort to destroy Parker Bowles's image in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death.
Opinion polls conducted immediately after the royal engagement was announced appeared to plumb new depths of public apathy, suggesting that as long as his plans place no strain on the taxpayer, Prince Charles will lose little public respect in marrying his mistress. It is well-known that Charles has been in love with Parker Bowles for more than three decades, and that he was devastated when she married someone else while he was serving in the Royal Navy.
That he did not resume his relationship with her until after his marriage had broken down - as he told a film-maker, "irretrievably" - while Diana pursued a string of lovers before their divorce, does not seem to have permeated some quarters of the population eager to cling to the "fairy princess" ideal that Diana did her best to foster. So Parker Bowles is widely blamed for the failure of Charles's marriage to Diana, who tried to ensure that this became the accepted version of events. Her insistence that there were "three people in the marriage" has been widely repeated in recent days, as has her description of Parker Bowles as "the Rottweiler."
"What would Diana think?" screamed the Daily Express, while Diana's former servant, Paul Burrell, who has carved out a career since her death as unofficial keeper of her memory, said Charles had chosen "personal pleasure over royal duty" and so should not be king. "He cannot be allowed to have his cake and eat it," he wrote in the Daily Mirror.
Burrell's views on Charles's future were reflected in a Daily Telegraph survey, in which 41 per cent of respondents said Charles should make way for William to become the next king (although 65 per cent approved of his marriage plans).
Much is made of the fact that Parker Bowles (57) is closer to Charles's age, shares many of his interests, does not pursue power in her own right or public attention through the media, is fun to be with, and provides the moody prince with solid support.
Jeremy Clarkson, laddish media personality, says he met Parker Bowles last year and found her "charming, down to earth and funny. I loved her". So much so, he'd back her as a prime minister. "She'd let us smoke, hunt foxes and drink what we want. She's that kind of woman."
These qualities have also reportedly endeared her to princes William and Harry - an important factor, as William, especially, commands huge popularity.