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Thursday 31 January 2019

A better class of driver

Prince Philip crashes his car, nearly kills someone, and he’s hailed as a free spirit, a bit of a lad. How’s that for a double standard?

By Martin Samuel

Jack Shepherd – who may or may not be known to you as the Speedboat Killer – how different might his life have turned out had he been a member of the Royal Family?

This applies to us all, of course. The lot of the majority would no doubt be improved by a stroke of hereditary luck. “The Queen wraps up warm to head out on a shoot on Sandringham estate with friends,” wrote The Daily Mail last week, “as she makes the most of the final weeks of her winter break.” Not exactly the end of a fortnight in Benidorm, though, is it? Not exactly back to the coal face on Monday. Her Majesty will be swapping her Norfolk estate for her Berkshire one, or for her central London residence and the stresses of reigning won’t change a great deal. Not as much shooting game birds with Jackie Stewart, obviously, but she’ll hardly be clocking in. And, fair enough, she’s 92. It’s not as if she could get a milk round now.

Getty Images

The Queen talks with Prince Philip

Anyway, it’s not the Queen that the Speedboat Killer probably envies, but her husband. How different would his circumstances be were he the Duke of Edinburgh?

Compare the public reaction. Shepherd, who seems a nasty piece of work, killed his date, Charlotte Brown, in December 2015 while behaving recklessly in charge of a speedboat on the Thames. She was thrown overboard and drowned, and he scarpered before the trial, receiving a six-year manslaughter sentence in his absence. He is public enemy number one, right now, and his case has drawn the attention of both government and national media. He has been the subject of statements from the Home Secretary, investigations, front-page revelations and ferociously damning campaigns. He has been painted as a soulless menace. Maybe he is.

Sky News

Scene of Duke of Edinburgh’s accident, close to Sandringham Estate

Philip, meanwhile, at the age of 97, had a car accident that was entirely his fault in which it was greatly fortunate no-one died. A woman was injured, and a baby removed from the wreckage unharmed. He pulled on to a busy road with the explanation that he was dazzled by the low sun. Making it something of a reckless judgment call anyway – driving without due care and attention, at least, if you or I did it. And the reaction? Land-Rover brought round a brand new motor the following day and the briefest debate explored banning all elderly drivers – not just the one that nearly caused a fatal accident – before this quickly went away. Indeed, pretty soon we were in familiar territory. Good old Phil. What a lad. You can’t keep a good Prince down – even when it may be your family he’s running off the road next. From his bolthole in Tbilisi, Shepherd might wonder whether a bit of royal blood might have helped his selfishness be reimagined as raffish swagger, too.

For, really, why is Philip on the road at 97? He’s not some lonely old boy in a country village whose wife and friends have passed on, who needs a car to get his groceries or maintain some contact with the outside world. Wherever he wants to go, he clicks his fingers and a fleet of the flashiest, most luxurious vehicles known to mankind are instantly at his disposal, with chauffeurs. Philip needs to be independent behind the wheel about as much as the Queen needs to make the most of her Christmas holibobs. Anyone else, of his age, who caused such utter carnage on a busy thoroughfare would never be allowed to drive again. Instead, there he was, with a brand new Land-Rover less than 24 hours later, showing he had learned his lesson by climbing in and pulling away without wearing a seat-belt.

Getty Images

Prince Philip drives himself in his Land Rover Freelander

And they love him for it, the punters. Philip’s not a menace, he’s not an arrogant, entitled old man. He’s a free spirit, a cavalier, he won’t bend to their rules – unless it’s the rule that says Windsor Castle is only owned by the public once it’s on fire. And if you’re going to be mown down in the street, seems to be the message – then all the better if it’s by someone posh. “That Duke of Edinburgh, what a gent. True, he stencilled me head halfway along the A149 but blow me down if not two weeks and a major public relations disaster later, I didn’t receive a letter in the post offering his apologies. And it all came on Sandringham House headed notepaper, with a lovely bill from his insurers for the cost of picking me dentures out of his radials. It’s like I’ve always said: if you’re going to be forced into a ditch at high speed, you can’t beat a royal… ”