ON 9 October, 1996, I was invited to lunch at Kensington Palace by Diana, Princess of Wales. After being greeted and shown in by her butler, Paul Burrell, I spent a few happy hours alone with the princess, during which we had a good old gossip amid more serious musings.
I mention my last lunch with Diana only because it was that very month, October 1996, in which Burrell says she wrote the letter predicting her own death in a car crash.
That detail, tucked away amid last week’s lurid revelations, surprised me. Diana was not in paranoid mode that day, or at that stage of her life. Far from it. Now that her divorce was final, she was at last relaxed and happy.
It was the previous autumn that she had felt most under threat, living in such fear of the Royal machine that she gave her notorious Panorama interview, thus reminding the Royals of the huge scale of her public following, and strengthening her hand in the ensuing divorce negotiations.
As the Burrell saga grinds on, it’s a minor detail. I have no doubt of the letter’s authenticity, I merely think he’s got the wrong October. The real point, as Burrell’s book is published worldwide, is that he and Diana between them still have the power to bring down the monarchy.
Yes, I would put it that strongly. Even posthumously, Diana can cause the Windsors at least as much trouble as she did while alive. Why else would the Royals, including her own sons, be so anxious to silence Burrell to the tune, according to the Mail on Sunday, of £5 million?
The “smoking gun” worth so much money is the tape Diana kept inside an antique box with her other most prized possessions, James Hewitt’s signet ring and a bundle of her father-in-law’s letters. The empty box, known as the “Crown Jewels”, has now been returned to the Spencer family. The signet ring has been returned to Hewitt. Burrell has denied knowing the whereabouts of the tape. But he said the same about Prince Philip’s letters, choice extracts from which he has now made public.
So what is on that tape? Diana’s recording of her interview with a former Royal valet, George Smith, the victim of an alleged gay rape by another Royal servant. Mr Smith was subsequently paid off by Prince Charles to the tune of three times his annual salary, as confirmed in the recent report by his private secretary, Sir Michael Peat.
In one bland sentence, Sir Michael dismissed the widespread belief that this was hush money, though he did confirm the prince as saying he wished Mr Smith could somehow be “made to go away”.
On the tape, Mr Smith reportedly gives chapter and verse on another allegation already in the public domain: that he had witnessed a Royal in a compromising act with a member of staff. Those in the know about Mr Smith’s allegations, myself included, believe the monarchy could not survive their publication.
They cannot be printed, for obvious legal reasons, unless Mr Smith himself chooses to make them public. Or someone publishes the tape.
Remember the tapes which passed into corrosive Royal history as “Squidgygate” and “Camillagate”? They’ve got nothing on “Smithgate”. Wherever that tape is, in short, the Royals will do anything to prevent its contents becoming public. And Burrell, at present, seems the person most likely to reveal its secrets, perhaps even to turn them into the second book he is said to be contemplating.
As if all this were not enough, Paris conspiracy theories are about to resurface en masse. Next Sunday sees Channel 5 broadcast an updated version of David Cohen’s documentary, Diana: The Night She Died. Mr Cohen is also finishing a book, containing new revelations, for publication early next year.
Meanwhile, the Surrey and Buckingham Palace coroner, Michael Burgess, cannot much longer delay the inquest into Diana’s death – required by British law.
For three of the six years since Diana’s death, the authorities have been able to delay the inquest while the French conducted their own long-drawn-out, and far from satisfactory, investigation.
Now Mr Burgess is saying that he must await the outcome of lawsuits brought in Scotland by Dodi Fayed’s father, Mohamed, and in Paris by the parents of the driver who died in the crash, Henri Paul.
Under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, recently adopted into UK law, Mr Fayed is seeking a public inquiry into the crash on British soil. Mr Paul’s parents are challenging the charge their son was drunk, alleging that his blood sample was falsified.
Both these cases are due to be heard in November, and are not expected to last long. So early next year, if not before, the inquest into Diana’s death will finally have to be held.
Will Mr Burgess just bang his gavel and declare it an open-and-shut case of accidental death? If so, I can already hear the angry chorus demanding the Hutton-scale public inquiry rejected by Downing Street last week. Surrey County Council has set aside £1 million of public money to fund the inquest, so they’re clearly expecting protracted proceedings.
Even so, it is hard to see how the results will satisfy most Britons who, according to polls, believe Diana’s death was not an accident. Combine that with Smithgate, and you have the makings of the Royal crisis to end them all, perhaps literally.
If the Queen thought 1992 her annus horribilis, she ain’t seen nothing yet.
See this website’s files on Diana:
Princess Diana: What Really Happened?
Affidavit of Richard Tomlinson:
“A Harlot, A Trollop and a Whore”