BY raising the stakes in her bid to retain a high-profile role separate from that of her estranged husband, the Princess of Wales has once again succeeded in stunning the royal family and at the same time pleasing a sizable section of the British public.
A week after her highly publicized interview on television in which she told a worldwide audience she did not expect to be queen, Buckingham Palace officials confirmed that Diana had asked to be appointed a roving goodwill ambassador-at-large for Britain.
The suggestion, and her lack of diplomatic training, have alarmed the Foreign Office, where a government source said senior diplomats did not think she was suited for what one official called ''a structured envoy role.''
Friends of the princess, however, say she will continue to press for the position. They cite extensive public sympathy for Diana and waning support in public opinion polls for the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
After her hour-long TV interview for the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Panorama program, and as if to ram home her ambassadorial ambitions, Diana embarked on a four-day visit to Argentina, where she drew big crowds and attracted extensive publicity. The trip was especially sensitive, as London and Buenos Aires remain at loggerheads over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, which they went to war over in the early 1980s.
A measure of the problem Diana's TV interview created for the royal family came within hours of the broadcast when a senior palace official offered to ''discuss the princess's future activities.''
Harold Brooks-Baker, an expert on European royalty, interpreted this as ''an attempt to limit the damage to the monarchy.''
In her TV appearance, Diana said that after her marriage, her husband and his supporters had attempted to ''isolate'' her. She also indicated that she doubted whether Charles wished to become king - a comment that enraged his friends.
The princess's wish to break clear of the queen's household and assert herself in her own right while retaining royal status, says Brooks-Baker, ''reflects her independent spirit'' but places the queen ''in a quandary.''
Prime Minister John Major has never said so publicly, but there have been persistent reports that he is sympathetic to Diana's wish to play an ambassadorial role.
No government ministers were willing to go on record with their views about Diana's wish to become an ambassador for Britain.
Dame Jill Knight, a Conservative parliamentarian, however, thinks the idea is worth discussing, but adds a note of caution. ''It depends what you mean by ambassador... There is a big difference between a professional diplomat and a roving envoy.... The time has come for clear definitions.''
While Diana's future role is clarified, there is strong evidence that she is well ahead of her husband in the contest for the British public's affections. A survey in the Dec. 3 Sunday Times showed that after the BBC interview, public sympathy for her rose from 27 percent to 39 percent. Over the same period, public sympathy for Prince Charles fell from 10 percent to 8 percent.