This time last week, it seemed inconceivable that Brexit could be displaced from the newspaper front pages. Yet extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures, and the Duke of Edinburgh, that faithful servant to the end, lurched forward with a reminder that retirement from public life does not necessarily preclude graceless cameos on the national stage.
With one ugly car crash making way for another, it is hard to believe the fallout from the 97-year-old’s accident did not elicit a sigh of relief from a besieged Downing Street. In the aftermath of the incident, Theresa May even found time to send Philip a private note wishing him well.
“The entire nation admires your determination, but perhaps now would be a prudent time to reflect on whether you remain able to maintain control,” he wrote in reply.
In the days since, Philip has otherwise maintained an uncomfortable silence, even as Emma Fairweather, the woman who suffered a broken wrist in the crash, questioned why he had failed to get in touch with her.
In defence of the Royal household, the Honourable Mary Anne Morrison, the Queen’s Woman of the Bedchamber, did leave Ms Fairweather a conciliatory telephone message. Sadly, she exceeded the voicemail size limit while only halfway through reciting her title.
It remains to be seen if any civil or criminal proceedings will be taken against Philip, but those who wish to see natural justice run its course can at least take comfort in the knowledge he will be on the receiving end of several months’ worth of calls from Bangalore call centre agents advising him that he may be entitled to compensation.
Save for the predictable white noise and phone-in fodder over whether a nonagenarian should be behind the wheel in the first place, the truth is that the story would have run out of steam were it not for Philip himself.
Only 48 hours after the crash outside the Sandringham estate, he was photographed driving a replacement Land Rover. It was a scene which smacked of obstinacy, and made immeasurably worse by the fact he was not wearing a seatbelt.
Those who grasped at a second chance to see the Iron Duke in chains were in for further disappointment. According to a forelock tugging Norfolk Constabulary, “suitable words of advice” were given to the Queen’s consort. The officer in question was last seen nipping the ear of a street urchin caught stealing a turnip from a costermonger’s handcart.
Even if Philip escaped penalty points or a fine – the kind of sanctions that would routinely befall his wife’s subjects – his actions managed to squander any remaining goodwill he enjoyed, and provided ample ammunition for those who need no persuasion to characterise him and his family as aloof, entitled, and out of touch.
After all, it was not the first time he had been involved in a scrape behind the wheel. Shortly after the war, he was travelling through London with his cousin, David Milford Haven, in what one biographer euphemistically described as a “a tour of the nightclubs,” when their Vauxhall, owned by Uncle Dicky – that’s Lord Mountbatten to you – crashed into a traffic island.
Peter Piggot, the author of the magnificently niche, if unnecessarily subtitled tome, ‘Royal Transport: An Insight Look at the History of British Royal Travel’ has also noted how soon after his marriage to the young princess Elizabeth, Philip was on occasion admonished by the press for speeding, including one time when he hit a taxi.
A more recent alleged transgression was aired by LBC radio station, when a caller identifying himself only as ‘Nicholas’ claimed Philip took his wing mirror clean off while careering through the Highlands one summer evening in the 1980s..
“I was driving north on the A93 between Blairgowrie and Spittal of Glenshee and he came down the road, driving right down the middle of the road, chatting to ex-King Constantine of Greece,” recalled ‘Nicholas’.
It is an anecdote which has more than a whiff of the flights of fancy embarked upon by a fading Peter Cook, when his ‘Sven from Swiss Cottage’ would regale listeners of the very same station with tales of mock despair. But anyone capable of identifying the terrified visage of a deposed Greek monarch at speeds of 60mph clearly has an eye for detail.
Such skirmishes appear to have done little to dissuade Philip from getting behind the wheel, and the latest is no exception. It is entirely in character.
This is a man who spent the best part of seven decades at the forefront of British public life, carrying out more than 22,200 solo engagements since the Queen ascended the throne in 1952. By virtue of volume alone, such statistics cannot help but command a degree of admiration for Philip’s endurance.
Yet such a virtue has always gone hand in hand with a stubborn fecklessness. Watching Philip’s latter years of duty was like buying a ticket to Bob Dylan’s famous Never Ending Tour, a cavalcade now in its fourth decade. It was always captivating, though seldom entertaining, and the benchmark by which success was determined was whether disaster was averted
The Royal family and its labyrinthine network of advisors, consultants, and confidantes have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate its image since the turn of the millennium, and to a large degree, they have succeeded.
The patriarch, however, is a project too far. There is a generation of Britons who could be forgiven for thinking his only lasting legacy will be listicles: ‘25 things Prince Philip said that will make you full body cringe’, shouts one. ‘15 of the worst things Prince Philip has said in public’, promises another. There is time yet, one suspects, for a few more additions.