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Has Camilla finally become the People’s Duchess? How the Duchess has won over the crowds

Twenty years ago today, to the rattling chorus of 200 flash guns and shouts from an unruly crowd, a middle-aged man and woman stepped uncertainly out of the Ritz Hotel in London’s Piccadilly. 

It was a heavily choreographed public debut, the high-water mark of a campaign designed to win the nation round to the idea of the ‘non-negotiable’ woman in Prince Charles’s life. As an opening gambit, it wasn’t a total success.

‘Meet The Mistress!’ ran one disobliging headline the next day. But the die was cast.

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting dinner hosted by them for Heads of Government in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Against the advice of the Queen, her eldest son and heir had finally gone public with the love of his life.

The challenge for Camilla Parker Bowles (as she was then) was whether she could make the public love her. What could she do to bury the widely held prejudice that she was Public Enemy No. 1?

Last week, the Duchess showed just how far she has come since that awkward first step into the spotlight, laughingly joining an unscheduled knees-up with pensioners at a Jewish care centre in London’s East End.

Other royals might find it hard to preserve their dignity on such impromptu occasions, but Camilla, in those long intervening years, has learned the game.

‘She’s warm, she is fun, she is friendly,’ says one who has calibrated her progress over the years. ‘She’s found a balance between maintaining a regal independence while being able to join in. She can take a joke and those she meets now really warm to her.’

‘She’s warm, she is fun, she is friendly,’ says one who has calibrated Camilla's progress over the years

‘She’s warm, she is fun, she is friendly,’ says one who has calibrated Camilla’s progress over the years

How different it all was 20 years ago.

Princess Diana had been dead for less than two years, and to many minds, Camilla was responsible. If it hadn’t been for Charles deserting her, Diana wouldn’t have found herself as a divorcee, with Dodi Fayed, in a death-trap car in a Paris underpass.

Significantly, the Queen had previously ordered that Camilla should never be allowed in the same room as herself — blaming Camilla, not her son, for the couple’s affair. However, the monarch had eased back her opposition to the relationship while still maintaining her own distance.

Charles, unbending in his determination to get what he wanted, called on Sir Angus Ogilvy, the husband of Princess Alexandra, to broker a deal with his mother so he could go ahead with his plan to marry Camilla.

But first, the public had to be won round. 

The first stage of the so-called Camilla Campaign lasted the best part of a decade from 1997 when the divorced Diana, then still alive, appeared to accept the fact that Charles and Camilla were a permanent item.

But the campaign was a failure: at its start, Camilla’s popularity rating was below 50 per cent. Ten years on, it was no better.

The architects of the strategy had, among other ploys, mischievously spread stories detrimental to senior royals, from the Queen Mother down to Prince Edward. Their aim was to make Camilla look good by comparison.

The first stage of the so-called Camilla Campaign lasted the best part of a decade from 1997 when the divorced Diana (above), then still alive, appeared to accept the fact that Charles and Camilla were a permanent item

The first stage of the so-called Camilla Campaign lasted the best part of a decade from 1997 when the divorced Diana (above), then still alive, appeared to accept the fact that Charles and Camilla were a permanent item

This heartless and ultimately futile game-plan, finally exposed for the cynical exploitation that it was, gave way to a much more sensible approach.

‘Instead of manipulating Camilla and her image, they allowed her to grow organically,’ I was told.

‘She was left to do things her way — and slowly she gained acceptance, simply by going out there and pressing the flesh. It’s extraordinary how deep-rooted prejudice melts away when people actually meet her.’

It took time. Those who know her say that, at first, Camilla felt she was running the gauntlet of a public that largely hated her, and had to summon all her courage to go out to meet the people.

Charles (above) called on Sir Angus Ogilvy to broker a deal with his mother so he could go ahead with his plan to marry Camilla

Charles (above) called on Sir Angus Ogilvy to broker a deal with his mother so he could go ahead with his plan to marry Camilla

From that halting start she has, over the years, made progress. Last year, she completed 219 public engagements — more than both Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge — as well as working in support of Prince Charles’s 507 engagements.

Along the way she has acquired a large clutch of patronages, from the University of Aberdeen to the National Osteoporosis Society, the victims of rape and sexual abuse, the advancement of literacy and animal welfare.

A high point of her 20 years in the spotlight came in 2013 when she attended a Commonwealth heads of government conference in Sri Lanka, when Charles was being sized up as future head of the Commonwealth — something that was far from a foregone conclusion at the time.

Resplendent in a sky-blue silk dress and crowned by a colossal Boucheron tiara once worn by the Queen Mother, she presented, according to one eye-witness ‘a vision of the future’.

If she was to be Queen, the observer added, this was the moment when ‘she demonstrated she’s got what it takes — her confidence, her regal bearing, that night showed she’s most definitely ready for whatever lies ahead’.

Compare that to one of her early solo engagements as Duchess of Cornwall when, in 2008, she turned up in Winchester to open an extension to the public library.

Indoors, a crowd of the great and the good had gathered to give her a welcome, but out on the street not a single person had come to see her — a handful of people stood at a nearby bus stop looking in the opposite direction as she got out of her official car.

Does she want to be Queen Camilla? Or is she content — as was claimed by courtiers at the time of her marriage — to be Princess Consort?

Does she want to be Queen Camilla? Or is she content — as was claimed by courtiers at the time of her marriage — to be Princess Consort?

What’s more, dealing with the family she married into hasn’t always been plain sailing. Though to all outward appearances she has the support and friendship of Prince William and Prince Harry, privately there is a distance.

She’s not overly enthusiastic with en masse gatherings of the Royal Family and tends, for example, to leave the Sandringham house-party at Christmas at the earliest opportunity.

Even at Highgrove, life can become tiresome with the constant conveyer-belt of servants and courtiers. Her bolt-hole, Rey Mill House, offers a welcome relief. Her life is comfortable, but not what she would have chosen.

And she lives, daily, with a huge issue at the back of her mind — what title she’ll take when her husband ascends the throne.

Does she want to be Queen Camilla? Or is she content — as was claimed by courtiers at the time of her marriage — to be Princess Consort?

A clue to her husband’s thinking, if not to hers, lies in a change made to the royal couple’s official website last year, when in March, references to Camilla becoming Princess Consort were removed.

The couple have seen off doubts as to the legitimacy of their marriage after some constitutional experts claimed it was illegal

The couple have seen off doubts as to the legitimacy of their marriage after some constitutional experts claimed it was illegal

A Clarence House spokesman insisted that nothing had changed — a risky assertion, given that it’s well-known that Charles wants his wife crowned at his coronation.

But does Camilla herself really want it? Does she want to risk triggering yet another outcry against her name? Though much less audible than when she first stepped into the spotlight, some nay-sayers are still griping. They cannot forget Diana.

In the summer of 2017, around the time of the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, a YouGov poll showed that only 14 per cent of people wanted Camilla crowned queen. Nearly two years on, close observers feel little or nothing has been done to address the question. 

One solution would be if the Queen were to make a public endorsement of Camilla, indicating that it’s her wish that she is crowned alongside Charles.

Critics argued that Charles should have been barred from marrying in a register office by two statutes 

Critics argued that Charles should have been barred from marrying in a register office by two statutes 

But there’s no sign of this at the moment. Of course, this leaves the Duchess in an isolated and vulnerable position — one that Charles finds it hard to understand.

At a time in life when she should be playing with her grandchildren, Camilla faces the prospect of a major constitutional row ahead, with herself at its centre.

The couple have seen off doubts as to the legitimacy of their marriage after some constitutional experts claimed it was illegal.

Critics argued that Charles should have been barred from marrying in a register office by two statutes — the Marriage Act of 1836, which prohibits royals from marrying in register offices, and the 1949 Marriage Act.

However, nothing short of a revolution can prevent Charles ascending the throne after his mother’s death — but a legal challenge to the legitimacy of his marriage might put a stop to Camilla being crowned.

And so, despite her cautious, shrewd game over the past 20 years, there could be a barrier in her future path. Yet with that knowledge, she soldiers on.

It’s hard to imagine Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — as Camilla did last week — allowing herself to be photographed walking through a guard of honour of litter-pickers dressed down in hi-viz jackets with plastic bags full of rubbish.

Yet for the Duchess of Cornwall it’s all part of the long game. She’s a tough nut to crack.

 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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