Charles has become new Labour's only loyal opposition

"Fasten your seat belts, folks. This is going to be a bumpy ride." Of late, those pilot's words have been crackling non-stop over the tannoy in the new Labour jet. With the turbulence caused by Geoffrey Robinson's alleged photographs and Janet Jones's bitchy memoirs (she is Lord Richard's wife), what was once seen as an EasyJet ride has turned into a nightmare plane journey. Scoops, scandals, back-stabbing, bum-kissing, there's enough there - and much more is promised - to alert the PM that he could be heading for a nosedive. Opposition is alive and restless; worse, it's coming from unexpected quarters: a former minister, a former minister's wife and the Prince of Wales.

The Prince of Wales? Er, yes. Far from being the dozy and compliant Charlie that Tony Blair thought he'd inherited, the future monarch is proving a thorn in the government's side. First there was China. When Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president, flew into town recently, everyone from Blair to Robin Cook rushed to roll out the red carpets and beat back the student protesters to ensure that the visit was a success. Not Charlie. He turned down an invite to sup with the man responsible for Tiananmen Square and the persecution of Tibetans. The prince seemed to be taking the talk about our ethical foreign policy a bit more seriously than was intended - and was shaming the Foreign Office by putting it into practice.

No sooner had the fuss over the royal snub died down than Charles was at it again. This time, he was thumbing his nose at the government's proposed fox-hunting ban. While new Labour is painstakingly recasting the rural sport as a toff's pastime whose cruelty is of gulag proportions, the prince was seen riding to the hounds with his firstborn. The newspapers had a field day with the story, portraying the father and son's ride as a politically subversive act that ranked with the gunpowder plot or the machinations of Messrs Philby, Burgess and Maclean.

At this point, poor Blair must be scratching his head. Charles's revolt is a bit like Hamlet stopping his hemming and hawing and suddenly kick-boxing his step-father into a pulp. The heir to the throne had shown no signs of an unruly disposition. Rather, with his tree-hugging talk and diffident manner, he looked like he'd remain safely stowed away in the shadows of his late wife. And anyway, wasn't he supposed to be busy shoe-horning Camilla into people's hearts and championing worthy volunteers for his Prince's Trust?

But the prince isn't reading from the Alastair Campbell-approved script. He obstinately takes stands and ostentatiously flouts new Labour diktats. He has transformed himself from a pedigree pushover to a royal with attitude. And if his independence has dealt a painful blow to Blair, it's commanding a grudging respect from the rest of us. No one had felt altogether comfortable with the fawning and scraping that had surrounded the Chinese premier's visit. And outside the Islington-Notting Hill axis, who regards the hunting ban as anything but a red herring to distract our attention from the NHS and the schools, not to mention the train tracks?

Two years ago Blair was posthumously anointing the people's princess. Today, her widower seems to have appointed himself the people's prince, champion of good causes and old practices, and blue-blooded proof that, if not yet post-monarchy, this country is certainly already post-politics. Even rabid republicans must admit that this newly confident prince can no longer be dismissed as merely an embarrassing relic of an anachronistic system.

New Labour must be worried. If Charles continues with his anti-government propaganda, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition could now follow 18th-century precedents and rally round the figure of the prince. He may not make a monarchist of us all but this new Charles may yet prove to have a longer shelf-life than the courtiers at No 10.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people