PM ticks off Soames for jibe at Diana

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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN

Chief Political Correspondent

Nicholas Soames personally apologised to the Prime Minister before being slapped down by John Major in the Commons yesterday for going over the top in accusing the Princess of Wales of being in the "advanced stages of paranoia".

Mr Soames, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, was not threatened with the sack, but it was made clear at Westminster by senior Conservative sources that his prospects for promotion had been damaged because of an alleged "lack of judgement".

Mr Major was prepared to tolerate his initial outburst against the Princess, but was irritated when Mr Soames continued to attack her publicly the next day. Downing Street had said he was free to speak personally, but yesterday the Prime Minister answered Labour calls for him to sack the minister by saying bluntly: "I do not expect any more comments."

Last night, Mr Soames's ministerial job was not at risk, but he has been left in no doubt that his role as a courtier to Buckingham Palace could not be allowed to override his ministerial duties again. The Prime Minister's Office refused to elaborate on his future, but the Independent has learnt that Mr Soames went to see Mr Major on Wednesday to apologise for the row over his remarks, and made clear that he would not be making any more comments on behalf of the Prince of Wales.

He apologised for a prominent report claiming that he had asked the Prime Minister to intervene at the Palace by asking the Queen to seek a divorce between Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales. He told friends: "It's absolutely untrue and I am saying no more."

A former equerry to the Prince, Mr Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill, was upset at the criticism his remarks in support of Prince Charles encountered after his appearance on Newsnight on BBC2 on Monday, immediately after the screening of the interview with the Princess of Wales on Panorama on BBC1. As the criticism mounted, Mr Soames told the Independent that he believed a divorce would be best for everyone concerned. As the Palace offered an olive branch of talks with the Princess, Mr Soames said the Princess should be given a role as an ambassador for Britain abroad, but she could not act "as a freelance".

The question of a role for the Princess and the divorce are understood to have been discussed when Mr Major had an audience with the Queen on Tuesday.

n Before the Princess's interview, public support for the Royal Family had dropped, according to a Mori poll in the Times today. Support is particularly low among the 18-to-24 age group. A separate Mori poll for the Sun carried out after the interview confirms that the public is two to one in support for the Princess.

Labour yesterday exploited Mr Soames's ministerial responsibility for the armed forces by pointing out that the Princess, whom he accused of paranoia, was also Colonel-in-Chief of the Light Dragoons and the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

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