How many courtiers have to fall on their swords to sustain the theory that Prince Charles had no idea honours and special favours were being promised in return for large donations to his charities?
So far this month it’s three. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Prince’s Foundation, the umbrella organisation for all his charities, resigned, and the foundation’s executive director stood down. On 4 September, it was Michael Fawcett, Charles’s former valet and the foundation’s now-former CEO.
Fawcett has had to resign twice already, but Charles says he can’t manage without him and his departure was billed as temporary. Ditto that of Chris Martin, the executive director. These moves are pending the outcome of various investigations, with the clear expectation that they’ll blow over.
They probably will. If the FBI can’t force Prince Andrew to answer questions about allegations of serious sexual assault, good luck to anyone hoping to bring charges against Charles within what will soon be his own kingdom. It will be especially hard under legislation that has seldom been tested on anyone and never on that strange mixture of individual and institution, of public servant and private – what? social entrepreneur? – that is the Prince of Wales in 2021.
But still, we aspire to the rule of law, so it’s worth looking briefly at what his critics say needs to be investigated.
Norman Baker, the former Lib Dem minister, and Republic, the anti-monarchy campaign group, say recent press reports constitute grounds for a criminal investigation under the Honours Act 1925 of possible sale of honours. They also say the reports describe illegal promises of help with fast-tracking a UK citizenship application.
The complaints arise from articles in the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Times dated 4 September. The Sunday Times story concerned donations totalling more than £1.5 million from Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire, to charities controlled by Charles, for the restoration of Dumfries House in Ayrshire. In return for his money, Mahfouz wanted a CBE and help with that citizenship application.
He had reason to expect it. The MoS reprinted sections of a letter from Fawcett to a Mahfouz aide saying that, in view of Mahfouz’s generosity, “we are willing and happy to support and contribute to the application for Citizenship”. (The letter also promised an application to upgrade Mahfouz’s honorary CBE to a KBE. He didn’t get it, but the CBE was awarded by Charles himself in a private, off-diary ceremony in Buckingham Palace in 2016.)
An internal investigation by the Prince’s Foundation is already under way. Another one has been launched by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. Baker and Republic want the Met to pile in too.
Baker tells me he sees “prima facie evidence of an offence under the Honours Act”. He wants a prosecution that looks beyond the former valet. In the Mahfouz case, “Michael Fawcett was only acting under orders and it’s difficult to believe Prince Charles knew nothing about it,” he says.
Mahfouz denies any wrongdoing. The foundation says it supports the investigations. Others say Charles does good work, and this is true. As Baker notes in his book And What Do You Do?, the Prince’s Trust alone has helped nearly 900,000 young people since Charles started it with £7,000 in navy severance pay in 1976. And there are other factors in the “let it go” column. Charles is in a unique position and therefore hard to judge with reference to legal precedent. He’s a very senior royal in a country that is still, broadly speaking, very royalist. Life is short. Nothing’s going to change.
And yet. Other people do good work without testing the law to its limits – the sort of people, in fact, who get gongs without paying for them. Charles’s unique position is also an important one: we will soon have to defer to him as head of state. And while the idea of trying not to despair about abuse of office may make sense in oppressive dictatorships, it’s surely defeatist in a free country. We should care about this stuff.
In an open news meeting at Tortoise this week, one of our members said she believed Charles was just badly advised. He does exude an earnestness that tends to support this idea, but I don’t buy it. At the same meeting, David McClure, an expert on royal finances who wrote in this space on Wednesday about our fascination with the royals despite ourselves, said Charles and his sons have explicitly and jokingly accepted his need to work with “Bond villains”.
But why? To support the charitable lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed? If you decide part of the job of waiting to be king is to restore priceless palladian mansions, no expense spared, then perhaps you need to tap people up for money without asking too much about where it comes from. But Charles got into trouble by personally guaranteeing a huge loan for Dumfries House just before the crash, and betting he could sell dozens of new-build homes on the estate at many times the going rate for Ayrshire. It turned out he couldn’t.
He didn’t have to do any of this. There are other ways of being a monarch-in-waiting and indeed other ways of refurbishing mansions. One is to fund it with the proceeds of shortbread in the cafe and B&B in the lodge, both of which are up and running at Dumfries House. It just takes longer.
Maybe Charles is impatient, and maybe he should be. His people insist he had no knowledge of any impropriety, real or alleged. If so he has nothing to fear from any investigation and would benefit when they clear his name. Absent that sort of transparency, it looks from the outside as if seventy years of preparing for the throne have left him smack in the middle of a noxious nexus of social climbers with concierge firms and boutique foundations that channel opaque money from all over the world into their pockets and his charities.
“He can’t see it,” Baker says. “He doesn’t have an inner circle. People who disagree with him get chucked out so he’s surrounded by sycophants.” He needs to open his eyes.
Photograph by Tim P. Whitby – WPA Pool/Getty Images