Excerpt: Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II

The queen had tried to be fair to her daughter-in-law, taking her side on occasions in the bitter separation battle with Charles. But Diana's open sniping at what she had publicly derided as the stuffy palace establishment made her the last person for whom the queen — or still less her strong-minded husband — would command such a change. Only days previously Diana had been parading the Mediterranean with her Egyptian playboy lover, the couple draped over each other half naked, to the horror of the royal family and the agonised embarrassment of her sons.

Fellowes got the answer he expected. There is long-standing mistrust in Buckingham Palace against making quick concessions to the concerns of the moment, especially when voiced by the tabloid media.

"It's like feeding Christians to the lions," says a former press secretary.

So the royal reaction to the TV straws in the wind was exactly the opposite of Alastair Campbell's. Unhappiness over the flag was something that the enduring monarchy should rise above in a world of trendy gestures. No flag except the Royal Standard had ever flown over Buckingham Palace.

"It just needs to be explained," insisted the royal private secretary.

Campbell did not push the point. Never one of nature's monarchists, he felt in alien territory. In his days as political editor and columnist for the Daily Mirror he had been famous for his scathing attacks on the misbehaviour of the young royals. As he had walked through the crowds that Wednesday morning to confer with Fellowes and the other members of the Lord Chamberlain's funeral committee at the palace, he felt he could sniff mutiny in the air.

"There was almost that football crowd fear, you know, when you're coming out of the stadium and your team has lost, and you're not quite sure what you'll find round the next corner."

But this lager and baseball cap analogy clearly did not fit the arcane world of deep precedence. It was like the negotiations over Northern Ireland with which Tony Blair was just beginning to grapple, with all its sticking points of flags and badges and emotion-charged symbols.

"There were times in that week," says one of No. 10's more radical insiders, "when you could not believe what was coming down the line from Balmoral. You wondered if they were living in the same century."

Campbell went back to Downing Street to confer with Blair, then gave Fellowes a ring at the palace.

"How would it be," he asked, "if Tony went out publicly into the street, outside Downing Street, and said, 'Look, these are ordinary people going through circumstances that none of us can imagine,' you know, a 'They are human beings' strategy?"

At the end of that Wednesday, the prime minister did just that.

"All our energies," he said in front of No. 10, "are now directed to trying to make this as tremendous a commemoration of Princess Diana as possible … I know those are very strongly the feelings of the royal family as well."

Blair's New Labour Party had come to power a few months earlier in the general election of 1 May 1997, winning a massive majority that owed not a little to Blair's consummate mastery of PR technique. The prime minister's appeal was timed to catch the evening news bulletins, then command the next morning's front pages. But only the left-leaning Guardian followed Blair's lead. The tabloids went for the jugular.

"Show us you care," demanded the Express over the photo of a flinty-faced queen.

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