Prince Charles's leaked letter to Tony Blair has not done him any good. The Mail on Sunday, whose first edition broke the story on Sunday, seemed to think that the letter did him great credit. One can certainly see what he was getting at. But to compare farmers with gays or immigrant communities, and to suggest that they are less well treated, was not spot-on. As has been pointed out, farmers, impoverished though many of them may now be, receive much bigger government handouts than either of the other groups. More damaging still than the letter was his reported remark that if fox-hunting were banned he might as well spend the rest of his life skiing abroad. Again, one sees what he means. But it seems a rather petulant threat coming from the heir to the throne, who should surely remain loyal to his future subjects whatever idiocies a particular government may inflict on us. Even fox-hunting monarchists may think that Prince Charles went a bit too far.
The letter, of course, was private, as were his reported remarks. That may not entirely get the Prince off the hook, since he should perhaps have suspected that such contentious views might be leaked by his opponents. But it does raise the question as to who should have wished to damage him by making his letter and comments public. Like many others, I immediately detected the hand of Downing Street, and of our old friend Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications. Some authorities have asserted that it was indeed No. 10 which dished the Prince. The motive is there - he was daring to oppose Tony Blair, whom he has irritated with a torrent of letters on all manner of subjects - and Mr Campbell is certainly capable of mounting an operation of this sort. But though it is certain that government spin doctors have been briefing against Prince Charles since the story blew, I am now one of those who question whether this was a dirty trick that emanated from No. 10.
In the first place, one cannot help wondering whether it would be worth the risk. It would be curtains for Mr Campbell if the leak were traced back to him. I grant that this is not a knock-out point, since Mr Campbell is a turbulent fellow who does not always precisely calculate the consequences of his actions, but I think it should be weighed in the balance. More pertinent is the identity of the original publisher of the story, the Mail on Sunday, and its author, Simon Walters, the paper's political editor. Mr Walters is perhaps the journalist whom No. 10 most hates. As an old adversary who embarrassed the government over the Black Rod affair, he is probably the least likely recipient of a Downing Street-inspired scoop. Of course, you might argue that Mr Campbell leaked the letter to Mr Walters for this very reason, hoping thereby to achieve the best possible disguise. But one can be too conspiratorial in these matters. I believe that Mr Walters got his story from another source. Incidentally, it is clear from reading his piece that he had not actually seen the letter. Unlike some other newspapers which followed up his story, he did not identify gays as one of the groups which Prince Charles believes is more favoured by the government than farmers. There may be a clue here, to which I shall return.
If No. 10 did not land Prince Charles in the soup, who did? The next suspect is St James's Palace itself. There are two alternative theories. One is that the Prince's own people mistakenly believed that leaking the letter would add lustre to their boss. They would have to be very stupid indeed to believe this. Moreover, when Prince Charles first wrote the letter in the spring, several people on his staff, including his press spokesman Colleen Harris, who happens to be black, expressed misgivings about the references to gays and immigrants. The missive was then set aside for nearly two months. This leads us to the second theory, which is that his own staff deliberately shopped their man to the media. This also seems inconceivable. However much some of his people may have disapproved of the letter and its strong language, none of them would have betrayed the Prince. On the other hand, when journalists rang St James's Palace on Saturday evening to seek confirmation of the letter, his staff were co-operative. It may be that at this point the reference to gays, which appeared in some papers but not the Mail on Sunday, was freely offered. None of Prince Charles's spin doctors appears to have offered a spirited defence of the letter. Indeed, one source tells me that it was written in much more extreme terms than any newspaper has so far suggested.
So St James's Palace may have added a can or two of paraffin to the fire once it was already blazing, but it did not start it. Who did? One plausible explanation is that a friend of Prince Charles was indiscreet, either directly to Mr Walters or to someone who passed it on to him. Here we must introduce the figure of the Tory MP Nicholas Soames, a close friend of Prince Charles and an ardent defender of fox-hunting. According to several newspaper accounts, Mr Soames himself had a hand in the letter. Sources in St James's Palace tell me that, if he did, it was not much of one. But they add that he may well have known about it. If he did, it is possible that he talked about it, not, of course, wishing to do any harm to Prince Charles, whom he reveres, but in the manner of one who thinks it is a jolly good thing that the heir to the throne should champion fox-hunting and be prepared to duff up the Prime Minister.
I rang Mr Soames, whom I do not know, to ask him whether he was in any way involved. He told me that he had had no hand in the letter whatsoever. Did he know of its existence? He replied that he did not want to move 'into very treacherous waters'. He said he did know that the Prince wrote quite often to the Prime Minister, but could say no more. But it was in his view 'astonishing that a private letter should have been made public' and 'absolutely bloody disgusting'. This was very vehemently said.
It would seem, on the face of it, that no one is responsible for leaking this letter. But of course someone did. My best bet is that there was a New Labour source outside No. 10 which passed on Prince Charles's remark about skiing. There is now a concerted effort to do him down. But surely Prince Charles is free to write as many letters to the Prime Minister or other members of the government as he wishes, though he may devalue the currency if he does it too often. It might have been better if he had not sent this particular letter, though you may reasonably say that he had no cause to believe it would be leaked. The upshot is that government sources are depicting Prince Charles as a garrulous and intemperate correspondent - they allege that he has been writing a flurry of letters to Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, on various legal grouses. Some in this government evidently do not wish Prince Charles well.