Profile: Charles's biggest buddy: Nicholas Soames, Royalist Minister for Food

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NICHOLAS SOAMES, the aptly shaped Minister for Food, and the Prince of Wales, much criticised heir to the throne, are good friends and have been so these past three decades - since 1960 in fact, when at the age of 12, Soames found himself fishing a Scottish river next to the Prince.

From 1970 to 1972, Soames served as Charles's equerry; Charles was best man at his wedding to the heiress Catherine Weatherall in 1981. Their relationship is said to be one of the few which Charles has that approach equality. It is based on what a close observer describes as 'a great deal of (private) mutual humour and banter but the utmost public discretion'.

On Tuesday Soames, who has often said kindly things about the Prince (along the lines of: there's nothing wrong with talking to trees), decided that he could stand it no longer and he should tell the country what's what.

The week had started badly on Monday with a dubious 'exclusive' by the Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, claiming 'Queen Wants Wills To Be Next King.' It got worse when the Archdeacon of York, the Venerable George Austin, questioned the moral suitability of the Prince of Wales to succeed to the throne.

Romantic royalism runs strong in Soames's blood. He is a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, who so famously rallied to the doomed Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936. The bluff, self-caricaturing, superficially ludicrous, 'Bunter' Soames decided to break the 'dignified but infuriating silence' imposed on his buddies by the Prince. He rang Kavanagh and delivered himself of an off-the-record flood of four-letter words. According to a friend, 'Twenty years of frustration came to the surface.'

As time wore on, Soames decided that something more public was needed. His view was reinforced by discussions on Tuesday. In the hours before he spoke out, there had been drinks at a Foreign Office party given by Alastair Goodlad, a minister of state, and a convivial dinner at the Carlton Club, where the 1983 Conservative intake entertained John Major.

At both occasions there was angry talk of what was seen as an unchallenged campaign against the Prince of Wales. Soames eventually returned to the Palace of Westminster. There - as he described the scene later in typically flamboyant language - he was 'jumped on by a squadron of reptiles'.

Soames allowed himself to be collared by several lobby journalists and boomed out, on the record: 'To be King is not an ambition, it is a duty. That duty will pass at the appropriate moment to the Prince of Wales.'

He added: 'It is not like waking up in the morning and saying, 'I want to be an engine driver.' It simply doesn't work like that.' According to one of the most serious professional observers of the Royal Family, 'It is simply inconceivable that Soames would have spoken as he did without talking to Charles or at least his Principal Private Secretary.'

This seems to have been the case. Soames had consulted the Prince's private office, which felt that it was the right time for someone to speak out and that Soames was the man for the job. He was a friend rather than a courtier, a politician in his own right and a man who represented two distinguished public families.

Nicholas Soames was born on 12 February 1948 into gloriously privileged circumstances and had in his own phrase, 'an absolutely enchanted childhood'. He was brought up at Chartwell Farm on his grandfather's estate. He saw the great man almost every day, and met most of the distinguished public figures of the 1950s because his own father enjoyed entertaining. Soames insists that the family was 'quite well off' rather than 'grand'. Nickers (as he came to be called) started hunting at the age of three, took his first salmon at seven and shot his first stag at 14.

Like his distinguished grandfather at Harrow, young Soames failed to shine at Eton, where he gained seven O- levels. This he puts down to the fact that in those days 'the slightly stupid and the very idle' were not pushed at school. He entered the 11th Hussars, where he served for three happy years as a second lieutenant.

Then, unexpectedly, he was invited by the Prince of Wales to serve as his equerry - essentially to be something between an aide-de-camp and a personal assistant. Social status and personal friendship enabled him to bring to the uniformed post a certain schoolboy sense of humour which the Prince appreciated. Nevertheless, it was a position which demanded judgement, self- discipline and absolute discretion from a young man only months older than the Prince himself. He demonstrated that he had the necessary virtues.

The elaborate procedure Soames and his contact went through this week was designed to contain two elements of deniability: Soames had not spoken to Charles before going public, and the Prince's private office had not sought the immediate guidance of the heir to the throne before quietly encouraging Soames. Such discretion proved unnecessary. Soames's intervention was deemed a success. The man Soames once described as 'a real Renaissance Prince' was said to be well satisfied with the one-off exercise.

Since his controlled outburst Soames has gone to ground. He has turned down every media offer to elaborate. On Wednesday, the day after his outburst, he spent the morning in the Commons debating the Protection of Animals During Transport Bill, spoke at a private luncheon given by the Seed Crushers' and Oil Processors' Association, chaired a Departmental Badger Strategy Seminar for MPs and attended the Food and Drink Federation Christmas Party.

Although a huntin', shootin', and fishin' grandee, Soames is also an old fashioned, romantic, one-nation Tory. This told against him during the long Thatcher years - as it had done against his father, Lord Soames, who was sacked as Leader of the House of Lords in 1981 amid great acrimony.

In his earlier career, the younger Soames had combined the role of equerry with a little gentle stockbroking. Subsequently, he left the Palace to work as personal assistant to Jimmy Goldsmith, tried to launch himself as a tycoon, failed to make his fortune, went to America, where he worked for a Congressman and then returned to England as an insurance broker. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was drifting. In compensation, he polished up his blustering Toad of Toad Hall image.

But breeding will out. Soames caught the political bug. He was blooded fighting the solidly Labour seat of Central Dumbartonshire in 1979 and gained Crawley, Sussex, four years later. He fell in love with Parliament immediately. 'Nobody could enjoy their job more than I do,' a friend recalls him commenting. 'I have been fantastically lucky.'

Young Soames was Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Gummer at Employment and to Nicholas Ridley at Environment, but these were unpaid posts in the personal gift of the ministers. He had to wait until 1992 before John Major gave him his first step up the ladder as Minister for Food.

At the time the appointment was seen as something of a joke on the circumferentially challenged toff whose weight is said to vary between 20 and 16 stone - and on the nannyish Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, with whom he would be expected to work on dietary matters. Soames enjoyed ribbing her. Soon after his appointment, the Minister for Food found himself at a party alongside the abstemious Mrs Bottomley. He proceeded to munch his way stolidly through 16 mince pies. Mrs Bottomley was horrified - as she was intended to be.

He has given up smoking, but still likes to encourage the belief that he breakfasts on a quarter-bottle of champagne, or cold grouse and claret. His favourite desserts include jam roly-poly and bread-and-butter pudding ('Prince Charles makes the best I have ever eaten').

He is resolute in his determination to beat off do-gooders and food faddists. In September, he infuriated Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) whom he has dubbed 'the hygiene police'. Speaking at the EHO annual conference, he advised small businesspeople not to be panicked into 'over-compliance' with demands of EHOs.

But Soames has taken the food job seriously. 'I've never worked so hard in my life,' he said a year ago. The initially sceptical department has taken to its unorthodox minister. His reputation has risen. A senior civil servant comments: 'He really does his homework - especially on key issues.' Another admires 'his common sense and self-control in an area beset with neurotic concerns'. A ministerial colleague talks with admiration of 'his very sharp political nose and brain'. John Major speaks highly of him.

More good fortune is coming his way. Having been divorced for five years, on 21 December he is to marry Serena Smith, 34-year-old daughter of John Smith, the former Tory MP for Westminster.

A couple of months ago there were rumours that the Prime Minister had thought of making Soames chairman of the Conservative Party. There was an element of truth to the story. But it had been exaggerated and spread about by chums as part of a public school-style jape. Soames played along for a while. But then he stopped joking, having asked himself why the proposition should be inherently ludicrous.

Come the spring, it will be time for Sir Norman Fowler, the present party chairman, to move on. He will by then have done the standard two-year stint. Central Office is in a mess; heavily in debt and stuffed with anonymous figures. The faithful are desperately in need of a boost to their morale.

There are few people on the rather uninspiring Tory benches who come from the heart of the party and who combine, as Soames does, showmanship, a nose for the essentials, and the sense of discretion and timing that he displayed this week. If he can only control his tendency to send himself up something rotten, Mr Soames might just find himself on the shortlist.

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