As the chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Maybach purred to a halt, the genial offering of a lift came from the open back window.
Old friends: Prince Charles and Michael Fawcett at the Christmas Shoot at Sandringham in 1992
But while the prince was an esteemed guest at the traditional tea ceremony and other solemn rituals of the coronation, his indispensable ‘Mr Fixit’ had other business to attend to.
Yet the fact that the prince’s one-time manservant was being chauffeured around the Japanese capital in one of the world’s most exclusive – and expensive – production cars, prompted barely a raised eyebrow.
Such has been the rise (and rise) of the man of whom Charles once said: ‘I can manage without just about anyone, except for Michael.’
Now that unique bond is facing its greatest test after Fawcett’s dramatic resignation as chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation following claims he had offered to help secure a knighthood and British citizenship for a Saudi tycoon who had bankrolled Charles’s charities.
And although it was announced that the former valet was stepping down ‘temporarily’ after being confronted with evidence in which he offered the royal charity’s influence in helping the businessman, many inside and outside the Palace were wondering if the man once dubbed ‘Fawcett the Fence’ for selling royal gifts had finally, by resigning, provided his last princely service.
For, as all-important as he undoubtedly is to the Prince of Wales, Fawcett has also at times been a liability – upsetting courtiers and being accused of bullying staff both senior and junior. But whatever the past accusations, he has remained serenely impervious to them all.
Will that be the case now?
Master and servant: Michael Fawcett (right) with Charles on royal duties in Scotland in 2019 with Lord Thurso (left)
We understand that the prince was both ‘shocked’ and ‘surprised’ by the weekend’s developments.
Initially, after being told of the existence of a letter in which Fawcett set out that the charity would be ‘happy and willing’ to use its influence to help Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, the prince simply didn’t believe it.
‘His first reaction was that he thought it was fake,’ I was told. ‘He was totally surprised, shocked even. He didn’t know anything about it.’
While this may demonstrate the extraordinary authority with which Fawcett has operated since becoming the de-facto head of Charles’s charity empire three years ago, it also reveals how reliant the prince is on him – and therefore his judgment.
Inevitably for someone who has survived so long and risen so high in royal circles, Fawcett has made enemies, many of them envious at both his proximity to the prince and his relationship with him.
Twice before Fawcett has resigned only to swim smilingly back into his royal role after the dust has settled. This time, however, questions are being asked whether – even if he is cleared of any wrongdoing – the prince may make his resignation permanent.
There is the issue of Fawcett’s serious lack of judgment in his grandiose offer to Dr bin Mahfouz coupled with Charles’s growing proximity to the throne.
Charles has become one of the most successful charity fundraisers in the world. As Prince of Wales, he has largely been able to ignore the clamour over how and where some of the money has come from. As monarch he simply would not be able to.
‘Maybe it is time, however unpleasant he finds it, for Charles to make a clean break with Fawcett,’ says one long-standing adviser. ‘It would send out a message that he was serious about preparing for his role as king and that he understands that Michael represents a point of conflict. The question is, will he do it?’
For the best part of four decades Fawcett has been an unwavering constant in the prince’s life – as ‘non-negotiable as Camilla used to be’, observes a palace aide – while others in his household have come and gone.
Quit charity role: The former aide is pictured with his wife Debbie near their home on Sunday
‘No one understands the prince’s moods and eccentricities quite like Michael – and no one has his skill in dealing with them,’ says a close friend. ‘We are not just talking about his petty foibles, how he likes his napkins folded or just how little vermouth should go in to his dry martini, Michael has trained others to do that. It’s that he gets his sensibilities and understands him aesthetically, philosophically and commercially. They are powerful assets and it is easy to see why the prince is so reliant on him.’
Certainly there was no clearer indication of that dependence than when Charles put the man who had once squeezed paste on to his toothbrush (after the heir to the throne broke his arm playing polo in 1990) in charge of his beloved Dumfries House, the Palladian mansion in Scotland which he saved for the nation.
The costly restoration has been a labour of love for the prince, who had taken a gamble on being able to secure the fundraising to make it all happen.
Fawcett’s role in turning the historic house into a busy venue for weddings and conferences while employing as many local people as possible was crucial.
From the beginning he was there three or four days a week. ‘It was the next best thing to having the Prince of Wales do the job himself,’ one figure from those days recalled.
One of Scotland’s finest homes, Dumfries House belonged to the 7th Marquess of Bute, former racing driver Johnny Dumfries, and had been built for his ancestor, the 5th Earl of Dumfries, in the 1750s.
But some 250 years later the Marquess put it on the market, planning to auction its priceless furniture and other treasures.
Charles raised the £45million needed to save the property in the nick of time, at one stage describing how the house’s irreplaceable Chippendales were heading by lorry for auction in London when the deal was done in the middle of the night and the drivers were dramatically instructed to turn around.
Originally he had hoped to recoup his costs by building a model eco village close by – a ‘Poundbury of the North’ as it was dubbed.
But plummeting land and property values left a gaping hole in the figures. Which is where Fawcett stepped in.
Using the same silky skills he once used to sell off unwanted royal gifts from foreign dignitaries on the prince’s behalf (a practice which led to him earning the ‘Fence’ nickname), he was the vital link between the prince and wealthy donors.
The truth is he was pushing at an open door: Fawcett discovered there were many rich men – and women – prepared to pay towards this princely project in return for royal access.
‘Michael was not just securing the money but he was also the impresario arranging all the extravagant events where the pampered guests would get out their cheque books,’ says a former aide. ‘He’s also persuasive in a very charming manner.’
It helped that he looked the part – spit-and-polished tasselled loafers, Turnbull & Asser shirts and silk ties and hand-tailored suits. It was a style, of course, that was epitomised by the royal prince he served with such devotion, right down to the silk handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket.
He also fiddles with his cuffs, just like his royal boss, and stands with his hands clasped behind his back. Indeed when Fawcett, who these days has a well-trimmed grey beard, is in the company of Charles, it is often hard to remember that their relationship is meant to be of master and servant.
At home in Hampton, west London, where he lives with wife Debbie, a former palace housemaid, the father of two even has a portrait of himself by the royal artist Peter Kuhfeld, whose other commissions included William and Harry as small boys and a canvas of the scene inside Westminster Abbey at William and Kate’s wedding.
All in all it has been an extraordinarily meteoric rise for someone who not so long ago supplemented his meagre royal income with a Saturday job in a menswear shop in Jermyn Street.
There are scarcely any below-stairs retainers still around who can recall Michael David Fawcett’s arrival at Buckingham Palace, straight out of catering college to work as one of the Queen’s footmen in 1981, wearing a polyester pullover.
But former staff remember him as a ‘bit of a Billy Liar’ who embellished a modest background. The teenage boy from Bexley, south-east London, talked of a wealthy accountant father. In fact his father was a company cashier and his mother Joan, who died when he was young, a district nurse.
At one point he grandly styled himself ‘Buxton-Fawcett’. Buxton was his mother’s maiden name but fellow staff were unimpressed and took to addressing him as ‘Sir Michael’.
Taken under the patronage of the Queen Mother’s staff at Clarence House, he was a fast learner and rose to become Sergeant Footman.
This gave him authority over the very people who had been mocking him and it also caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, who asked him to become his assistant valet.
When the newly married Charles and Diana set up home in Kensington Palace, Fawcett went too. He and Diana, just a year his senior, got on well and were often to be found in the palace kitchen chatting over bowls of yoghurt.
This easy friendship did not last. As the royal marriage disintegrated Fawcett was firmly on Team Charles.
When the couple separated in 1992, Diana had the locks of the marital apartment changed. Not to keep out Charles but the interfering Fawcett.
In the years of the royal separation Fawcett’s influence grew. By now increasingly overbearing, Fawcett – who had been promoted from valet to personal assistant – was the subject of a complaint from other servants.
He resigned only to be reinstated after Camilla intervened.
Five years later he stepped down again after an internal inquiry found he had broken regulations by accepting and selling gifts that Charles did not want. Crucially, the investigation cleared him of any financial wrongdoing.
In resigning Fawcett took the heat from Charles, a move that endeared him even more to the prince.
Charles rewarded him with a £500,000 payoff and the unswerving loyalty that exists to this day. Fawcett set up Premier Mode, an events company with the prince as number one client, organising all his social gatherings, including the wedding party when Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall married in 2005.
According to its latest figures the company – in which his wife, son and daughter are all directors – had healthy assets of more than £141,000.
With Camilla he later oversaw the renovations of Clarence House and Birkhall near Balmoral, the two homes Charles inherited on the death of his grandmother the Queen Mother.
But it is as fundraiser extraordinaire that Fawcett has come into his own. On one occasion he was introduced to a wealthy Arab businessman who said he would be honoured to present the prince with a traditional – and valuable – gold sword. A message went back that what the prince would really appreciate were some carpets.
Not long afterwards £40,000 of new carpet was being laid at Dumfries House.
‘Only Michael can do something like this,’ says a colleague admiringly. ‘The prince is constantly amazed by what he does.’
Recently Fawcett, who will be 60 next year, has been talking about retirement. Once this seemed unlikely as he was said to be in line for a major role when Charles becomes king.
Some of the details of Charles’s coronation were expected to be in Fawcett’s hands – which might explain his presence in Japan picking up tips as the crown passed to a new emperor.
There has even been talk of him becoming Master of the Household in the new reign.
Today, thanks to the revelations about cash for honours, that looks uncertain.
Once again Michael Fawcett’s future is in Charles’s hands. The question is, does the prince have the resolve to finally part from him?