Camilla Parker Bowles AS the press hovered around Sandringham this Christmas, snapping pictures of a glum-looking British royal family, one woman must have been scenting a certain sort of victory. Not Princess Diana, who is facing the prospect of a divorce, but Camilla Parker Bowles, the 'other woman', the partner Prince Charles must eventually be able to squire in public, whether as his wife or as an unofficial consort. London was awash with rumours this week that the future King of England would one day wed his long-standing lover. That, it was said, prompted Prime Minister John Major to forget his fast disintegrating Conservative Party for a short time and warn the Queen that the country would not tolerate a Queen Camilla. The Daily Express quoted an unnamed friend of Mrs Parker Bowles as saying: 'She wants a clear commitment to marriage with some role in a consort capacity' when Charles becomes king on the death of the 69-year-old Queen. The paper reported that friends say Mrs Parker Bowles believes only marriage to Charles can restore her tarnished reputation. They first met and fell in love in 1972. The report was quickly denied, but this week it became abundantly clear: Camilla, the woman who to her credit has never used the press as a weapon in this long-standing feud, is now poised to play a pivotal role in the future of the monarchy. The reality is that Diana is on her way out of the sovereign's immediate circle and there is every sign that Camilla is there to stay. Charles, in the aftermath of his mother's 'divorce-now' injunction, had indicated he had 'no intention' of remarrying. 'No intention,' close friends insist, does not mean never. On the contrary, they add (to the dismay of some leading members of the Anglican Church, who have spoken out forcefully about any continuation of the relationship), the heir to the throne retains a deep-seated hope that, one day, Camilla will be his queen. Camilla, unlike Diana, is clearly Charles's 'natural born' companion . . . a remarkably discreet woman, 16 months older than him, with whom he shares similar interests in a way that was never the case with Diana. There is polo, of course, but much else, besides: Camilla, the eldest daughter of Bruce and Rosalind Shand, was born into the sort of 'country living' gentry in which Charles delights. Both ride to hounds. Both fish. Both shoot. Contrast this with Diana's horror of blood sports. Camilla is a no-nonsense, tough-talking country woman (cut across her in the course of a hunt, it is said, and you'll get a tongue-lashing that you won't forget in a hurry); Diana, by contrast, is a committed city dweller - someone far happier wandering down Chelsea's King's Road, rubbing shoulders with other fashionable Sloane Rangers, than trudging through the mud and slush of country estates. Diana, for example, has always been a disco queen and a gym junky; Camilla has never been known to indulge herself in that way (though she did fence at school). Camilla, indeed, is, in every respect, apparently far more earthy than Diana: not for her the sort of romantic circumlocutions of the Princess of Wales; rather, the straight-to-the-point language of the now famous Camillagate tapes. And the irony of it all is overwhelming, for just as Camilla pre-dates Diana in terms of Charles's affections, so, too, did she play a role in selecting the then Lady Diana Spencer as a young woman suitable for the future King to marry - and even in starting up the briefly-happy relationship. But Camilla is nothing if not a realist, and that has shown from the time she first met Charles. Had she targeted Charles in the way many believe Diana did, perhaps history would have turned out differently. She might have married the Prince. After all, as the grand-daughter of Lord Ashcombe, Camilla had the aristocratic pedigree for the role. She had the credentials to become Queen. But by 1970, she recognised she already had a 'history', as it is politely put. She had been around. That would not do for the consort to the heir to the throne. Diana, by contrast, was squeaky clean. She was the blushing nursery school teacher in a plaid skirt. Nothing would emerge from her to cause embarrassment to the future king - or so they thought. Eight years later, Charles was married. But when his relationship with Diana turned sour, he returned to Camilla. And it is to Camilla that he has turned ever since - especially since her recent divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles. Frequently, she is seen leaving Charles's Highgrove home. In the midst of last week's crisis following the Queen's demand that Charles and Diana divorce, Camilla was reported to have had dinner with the heir to the throne. By most accounts, they see each other regularly. 'Camilla,' says one of the Prince's friends, 'is a real brick, a real good stick: she's always there when Charles needs her. 'And there are none of the complications caused by Diana: Camilla is absolutely discreet. She doesn't run to the papers, like Diana. 'Charles knows he can trust her, and that counts for a lot in his sort of world.' While Charles and Diana were at daggers drawn over Christmas, Camilla had Christmas dinner with Andrew Parker Bowles and their two children. They all remain friends. And, it is believed, she also saw Charles more than once. Significantly, a recent poll by the London Sunday Times showed that half the Labour MPs in the House of Commons, and a quarter of Tories, believe that the relationship between Charles and Camilla should be allowed to emerge into the public gaze, and to develop. They see no long-term impediment to a more formal union. That process, if it happens, will not be easy, for Diana, at least for the time being, is enormously popular. And that means, by definition, that Camilla is doomed to unpopularity. A winner this week, perhaps, but she has a long way to go before she can win the approval of the British public.