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In the latest humiliation to strike the House of Windsor, the wife of Prince Edward has stepped aside as head of her public relations firm after admitting she made a series of unguarded remarks about members of the Royal Family and British politicians that ended up in print.

The Countess of Wessex, the former Sophie Rhys-Jones, admitted her "misjudgment" in making the comments to an undercover reporter for the tabloid News of the World, who posed as an Arab sheik and potential client for her company, R-JH Public Relations.

"This is a difficult time for me," said the 36-year-old Countess, wife of the Queen's youngest son.

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"I take very seriously the issues raised, and naturally, regret any embarrassment above all to the Queen.

"I am deeply distressed by the carrying out of an entrapment operation on me and my business, but I also much regret my own misjudgment in succumbing to that subterfuge," she continued in her statement yesterday.

In a separate statement from Buckingham Palace, the Queen lashed out at the "entrapment, subterfuge, innuendo and untruths to which the Earl and Countess have been subject in recent days."

The Queen said she has supported the desire of both Sophie and Edward to continue pursuing their working careers, but noted in so doing, they're "always open to accusations of pursuing their royal status in pursuit of their own business interests."

She said in the coming weeks the palace will study these potential conflicts of interest in light of this episode, but in the meantime, Sophie will "step aside" as chair of R-JH. There was no indication of how long her absence will last.

Transcripts of a series of meetings between Sophie, her partner Murray Harkin and the fake sheik were made public yesterday in a 10-page spread in The News of the World, a sensationalist, low-brow newspaper owned by Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

The reporter, Mazher Mahmood, specializes in masquerading as a wealthy Arab prince to lure sports personalities and celebrities into making revelations usually related to sex and drugs, staples of the competitive and unprincipled British tabloid press.

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Sophie appeared gullible enough to take the bait, and then spilled her views to strangers with a candour breathtakingly ill-advised for a member of the Royal Family.

According to the transcripts, Sophie offered views distinctly critical of the ruling Labour Party, accusing Prime Minister Tony Blair of being "ignorant" of the problems of the countryside because of his support for a ban on fox hunting. As for his wife, Cherie, "she is even worse," the Countess said.

Sophie called the latest government budget "a load of pap" and told the fake sheik that Labour have added 40 per cent to average taxes since taking office in 1997. She was more charitable to Conservative Leader William Hague, though said he "sounds like a puppet, unfortunately."

Her comments about the Royal Family were generally positive. She said Prince Charles is "great fun" and "so laid back" with his sons, William and Harry, but added it would be hard for him to marry his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, as long as the Queen Mother is alive.

The Countess also made it clear that clients who hire her firm could expect a bonus because of her royal connection.

"If anybody ever gets some kind of additional profile or benefit from being involved with us because of my situation, that's an unspoken benefit. It's not something that anybody promises, it's something that just occurs."

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But it was the comments of the Countess's business partner, Murray Harkin (the H in R-JH), that probably put the lid on Sophie's involvement in the company.

The transcripts reveal that Mr. Harkin, a 37-year-old former disc jockey, told his would-be client that he doesn't use drugs often but quite likes "the odd line of coke." Mr. Harkin, who is openly gay, also said he could organize a party involving young men for the client.

Asked whether Edward was gay, Mr. Harkin responded, "I'm a great believer that there's no smoke without fire."

Mr. Harkin also made it clear that the sheik could expect special royal treatment if he hired R-JH to promote his leisure and sports centre in Dubai.

Mr. Harkin said Sophie couldn't do direct endorsements in the Britain, but it wouldn't be a problem if she was photographed at a launch party for the centre in Dubai. He also hinted there would be "a potential for Edward as well" to help out in any publicity drive in Dubai.

Faced with the revelations, Mr. Harkin resigned from the PR firm yesterday.

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Both Sophie, the daughter of a tire salesman and widely criticized as a social climber, and Edward have long been accused of trying to capitalize on their royal connections to further their business careers.

Edward runs a money-losing film production company, which has consistently exploited his princely connections. Just last week it was revealed that on a recent trip to the oil-rich kingdom of Brunei, Edward persuaded the Sultan to open his magnificent private gardens for a documentary that the prince's film company was planning.

In publishing the transcripts yesterday, The News of the World reneged on an agreement not to publish details of its reporter's sting operation. That agreement had been struck with the palace to avoid publication of the story a week ago.

In return for the original vow not to publish, Sophie agreed last week to an on-the-record interview in which she again showed a remarkable lack of judgment, telling the tabloid her husband is not homosexual and they will do whatever they can to have children.

Details of the original interview with the sheik, however, were leaked in a rival tabloid last week, including reports of even more salacious comments that proved to be unfounded.

The News of the World then abandoned its original pledge not to publish, and splashed the full story on its front page yesterday. The tabloid said it was obliged "to put the record straight."

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The scandal is the worst to hit the Royal Family in several years. It brought to mind the unseemly spectacles that surrounded the public squabbling and embarrassing revelations about the love lives of Charles and his former wife, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, in the 1990s; as well as the toe-sucking incident involving the Duchess of York when she was still married to Prince Andrew.

Consumer Affairs Minister Kim Howells said he could never understand the attraction of the Royal Family. "They're all a bit bonkers . . . They choose very strange partners, they're not managing the modern world very well."

Sophie's comments have again stirred questions about the role of the Royal Family and, in particular, the roles of its minor members such as Edward and his wife, who are far down the list of succession but still get an allowance from the public purse.

Yesterday, some called for the so-called Civil List to be restricted to those closest to the throne.

Other MPs want to go further.

"Why do we have such an undemocratic institution as the monarchy in the first place?" wondered Labour MP Jeremy Corbin.

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