SCOTLAND Yard has stepped up its inquiry into conspiracy theories that Diana, Princess of Wales, and her lover, Dodi Fayed, were murdered, by placing a more senior officer in charge.
In a surprise move, only 24 hours after the inquiry was first announced at the opening of inquests into the couple’s deaths, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, confirmed that he has replaced Commander David Armond with the higher- ranking Deputy Assistant Commander Alan Brown.
The official reason given by the Metropolitan Police was that Mr Armond had other commitments, but the timing of the change has led to speculation that a higher-profile officer was needed. Mr Brown, Sir John’s fourth in command, is the UK’s leading expert on critical incidents such as kidnap, blackmail and extortion and his appointment is seen as a signal of the importance of the task.
The news came as the Prince of Wales underwent his first public appearance after he was named - in a letter written by Diana, held by her former butler, Paul Burrell, and published by the Daily Mirror - as the person the princess believed was plotting to injure her in a road accident. No evidence has ever been presented to substantiate her claim, and the Daily Mirror has admitted the claim would be seen by many as "preposterous".
Prince Charles was cheered by about 200 supporters, one of whom shouted: "Keep your chin up Charles!" when he arrived to open Hereford Haven, a breast cancer support centre, yesterday. He refused to be drawn on allegations that his wife believed he planned to harm her.
It emerged on Tuesday that Charles and his sons, William and Harry, could be questioned by the inquiry team now headed by Mr Brown.
Yesterday, the former deputy chief constable of Manchester, John Stalker, said that the heir to the throne ought to be interviewed by police over Diana’s hand-written letter - to allow him to formally deny it.
Mr Stalker conducted an investigation into the French inquiry, which blamed Henri Paul, the driver who died in the crash after taking a cocktail of drink and drugs.
Mr Stalker has dismissed conspiracy theories and maintains the deaths were an accident.
"I believe Sir John should interview Prince Charles," he said. "It will be unprecedented, but it’s an allegation by his former wife that he was planning to kill her. It is in everybody’s interest that Sir John should put the allegation to Prince Charles so that he can formally deny it."
Sir John had previously placed Mr Armond, who was involved in the investigation into the former royal butler, Harold Brown, whose theft trial collapsed in 2002, in charge of the inquiry into whether the Paris car crash that killed the couple was anything other than just a road accident.
But he said yesterday it would be unfair to ask him to do it on a full-time basis as Mr Armond, a member of the Met’s anti- terrorist unit and the serious crimes squad, had other commitments.
His replacement, Mr Brown, was in charge of Operation Trident, the Met’s dedicated unit for tackling black-on-black gun crime in the capital. He was also advisor to the longest-running siege in police history in Hackney in 2003 - where the hostage was released unharmed - and was honoured with a Queen’s Police Medal in the 2004 honours list.
A Scotland Yard statement said: "On reflection, the commissioner has decided it would be unfair to ask Cmdr Armond to lead this inquiry on a full-time basis while attending [a] four-month course, which started today.
"Now that the inquest process has begun and the scale of the Metropolitan Police Service commitment is clearer, a team under a deputy-assistant commissioner is the appropriate command structure."
The statement added that while it was routine for police to be asked to assist coroners, "it is recognised that these particular inquiries will be of a sensitive and high-profile nature".
In the past few months, Mr Armond has helped the coroner in regard to the princess’s death on a part-time basis.
Sir John confirmed he would personally oversee the investigation. He is due to meet with the royal coroner, Michael Burgess, soon.
Yesterday, the former royal coroner who confirmed on Tuesday that Diana was not pregnant when she died, said that he doubted whether the rumours would ever subside.
Dr John Burton, who was present in the Fulham mortuary when the princess’s womb was examined, said he felt that most people still thought she was expecting.
"I still think about 85 per cent of people believe the rumours. There’s nothing I can do about it," he said.
Dr Burton, who was coroner of the Queen’s household when Diana and Mr Fayed were killed in a car crash on 31 August 1997, said that a series of "absurd" conspiracy theories - including one that a French pathologist, Professor Dominique Lecomte, had colluded in disguising Diana’s pregnancy - had prompted him to speak out. However, he insisted he had always said the princess was not pregnant.
"To say, as some have done, that at six weeks pregnant she might have been showing, outwardly, signs of pregnancy is rubbish," he said.
Speculation over whether Diana was carrying a child at the time of her death - a theory dismissed by her friends and by Mr Burrell - was revived last month when the Independent on Sunday quoted a French police source saying that she had been.
One theory suggested that embalming fluid used before Diana’s body was flown to England would make it impossible to tell if she was pregnant.
However, Dr Bruton told the Times yesterday: "You wouldn’t need to do any tests if you looked at the womb as you are required by the Coroners Rules. I have seen into her womb."
The Coroners Rules demand that post-mortem examinations include the womb.