London, Nov. 4 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair leapt to the defence of Queen Elizabeth today after she came under further fire over her role in the aborted trial of Princess Diana’s former butler.
Blair said the Queen had acted entirely properly in the case and ruled out changing the judicial system to force the royal family to testify in court.
Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the controversy — former royal butler Paul Burrell —was in hiding in North Wales, from where he promised to go public with his story, which has fascinated and titillated Britons for weeks. He has received hundreds of lucrative offers for the rights to publish his story, evidence once again of the British public’s enduring obsession with Diana.
Burrell was cleared on Friday of stealing over 300 personal items belonging to Diana following her death in 1997. The items included dresses, shoes, hats, a pair of Diana’s pyjamas and some of her letters to her son Prince William.
The trial collapsed after the Queen said she recalled a conversation in which the butler told her he had taken some of Diana’s belongings for safekeeping. That destroyed the prosecution’s case which had rested on the premise that the butler had not told anyone he was taking the items.
Newspapers have asked why the Queen waited so long before speaking up and some politicians have said she should foot the bill for the court case, thought to total around £1.5 million.
Papers have floated conspiracy theories about the timing of the royal move, which came just as Burrell was about to take the stand to give potentially embarrassing information about Diana’s private life.
But Blair defended the Queen and said she had to be protected from the adversarial rigours of the British courtroom. “The Queen acted, in my view, entirely properly throughout. I don’t think it’s right we change the rules on the Queen testifying in court,” he told a news conference.
Under current rules, the Queen, as head of state, is protected by sovereign immunity from appearing in court.
However, critics say immunity should only be granted when state secrets are at stake. They say it should not be used merely to protect the royal family from potential embarrassment.
Maverick Labour MP Dennis Skinner, an ardent republican, refused to accept that the Queen had simply forgotten about her crucial conversation with Burrell. “Every single prime minister that’s met the Queen always tells you she’s got a memory and a half, she knows everything about everything and she knows the Ascot race card inside out,” he said, alluding to the Queen’s love of horse racing.