In the twilight of her remarkable reign, the Queen could be forgiven for sitting back with a quiet smile of satisfaction.
Still basking in the glow of the euphoria generated by her Diamond Jubilee and 90th birthday celebrations, her dynasty is in a remarkably good place after the tumultuous events of the 1990s, which saw the family tainted by divorce and tragedy.
The frankly bizarre handling of events of the last few days has proved, however, that when it comes to the Royal Family, public opinion should never be taken for granted.
When it emerged on Thursday that the 97-year-old Duke had been involved in what was blandly described as a ‘road traffic accident’ – but thankfully was not injured – many smiled conspiratorially at the idea that the doughty ‘Duke of Hazard’ was up to his old tricks again.
Prince Philip has been spotted behind the wheel of his brand new Land Rover today just two days after flipping his car in a horror crash
But as the potentially horrific nature of the accident began to take shape, the Palace’s attempts to play down the incident began to look rather questionable.
Indeed, after eye-witnesses and police revealed the dramatic nature of the accident – two women hurt, one with a broken wrist, and a nine month-old baby lucky to escape unharmed – the seriousness of Philip’s decision to carry on driving at 97 began to be called into question.
Surely we can console ourselves that Philip, heard calling himself a ‘fool’ after being pulled from the wreckage of his Land Rover and expressing concern for those involved, has learnt his lesson?
On Friday – less than 24 hours later – a replacement Land Rover was delivered to Sandringham.
Hours later, the Queen was photographed driving on a public road without her seat belt on.
The following day, Philip himself, back in the saddle, so to speak, was given a warning by police for the very same offence.
The overturned SUV that was bring driven by 97-year-old Prince Philip after the crash
The sense of astonishment has been genuinely palpable.
On social media, 24 hour television and radio phone-ins, Royal watchers were talking of little else.
‘Inexcusable, reckless, arrogant’, ‘Please tell him to stop driving before he kills someone’ and ‘I have so much respect for the Queen, but this is terrible’ are just three of the hundreds of messages I have received via Twitter.
Yesterday the elder passenger in the other car, Emma Fairweather, poured fuel on the PR fire when she claimed that she has yet to receive any kind of apology, bar a somewhat clunkily-worded message via the police that the Queen and her husband wanted to offer their ‘well-wishes’.
One senior royal source insisted to me yesterday that the household had, in fact, made numerous attempts to contact the victims, both via the police on Friday and in person on Saturday – and even continued to try yesterday, so far unsuccessfully.
So why has the normally sure-footed Royal Household got it so badly wrong? Royal insiders – both past and present – insist the issue lies with the duke himself.
A caustic character (albeit one far more sensitive and caring than his image belies), Philip will take advice from no-one.
Members of staff he would once have listened to, such as his respected former private secretary Miles Hunt-Davis, and Dick Griffin, his delightful, no-nonsense ‘old school’ former police chief, are either dead or long retired.
Current right-hand man, Archie Miller-Bakewell, was sniffily described to me yesterday as ‘charming, old school, Establishment – and completely wet’.
A source said: ‘Dick was an old-style copper and, along with Brigadier Hunt-Davis, was the only person able to stand up to the Duke.
‘He would have taken the duke’s keys away from him rather than let him drive, and Miles was just about the only person, aside from his wife, that could have made him realise was a damn fool he has been.’
Most of the day-to-day work concerning anything to do with the prince’s private affairs is dealt with by the deputy master of the household and equerry to the Queen, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Richards, an immensely capable man – but not one in a position to tell the duke ‘what’s what’.
When I asked one former senior courtier yesterday why Philip would have been insistent on getting back behind the wheel just hours after causing such carnage, they snorted: ‘He’s such a difficult, belligerent man and has always been intent on pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.
‘Most of the time it is harmless and often actually welcome. He’s a fiercely intelligent, enquiring individual, even now, who has actually been a huge force for good when it comes to modernising the Royal Family.
‘But then something like this happens, which just brings out the worst of him.’
Another courtier added: ‘The thing about the royal family is that they live in a traffic-free world. Think about it. Whenever they go out in car, whether it be in a convoy or driving themselves, the roads are cleared for them.
‘They don’t normally have to face the hazards that the rest of us do. It gives them a sense of entitlement and invincibility. Add that to the duke’s age and stubbornness, it’s a potentially dangerous combination.’
Asked whether Philip has ever passed his driving test – a question that Buckingham Palace has so far been unable to answer – they explained that many royals, especially the older ones, had simply been taught by police protection officers on their private estates, – but could not confirm whether that was the case for the duke.
They did, however, express the opinion that it wouldn’t have been surprising if Philip had headed out without any police officers with him, recounting numerous stories of how the Queen’s husband would drive his Scotland Yard team frantic with worry after stubbornly heading off on his own.
No-one, by the way, even attempted to defend the Queen and her husband’s decision to drive without their seat belts, let alone in the aftermath of such a serious accident – over which the duke could yet be prosecuted.
The royal mantra of ‘never complain, never explain’ – which has been their trusted stock in trade for so many decades – has never looked so out of place.