Inside the head of Prince Charles

What can he be thinking? The heir to the throne has taken a newspaper to court over publishing extracts from his diaries, but it is his reputation that is in the dock. Francis Elliott follows the private paper trail
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Prince Charles does not write in green ink. He prefers to sign his many missives to ministers in a delicate violet hue, according to one recent recipient.

Passed around the Whitehall department to which it was sent from Clarence House, the letter elicited groans of recognition from ministers and officials alike. "It was fairly typical - special pleading for one of his mates," sighed one.

Until last week, the Prince's curious literary style was familiar only to his friends and correspondents. Now, thanks to his rash decision to go to law to recover his travel journals from a newspaper, we can all enjoy his blend of Goonish humour, whimsical regret and political polemic.

There have been gems to savour. His account of flying cabin class to Hong Kong for the hand-over to the Chinese is sure to linger long in the public mind. "It took me some time to realise that this was not first class (!) although it puzzled me as to why the seat was so uncomfortable," he wrote in a journal distributed to between 50 and 75 courtiers and friends.

Then there is his account of giving a speech in the rain to an audience of British dignitaries and the "appalling old waxworks" of the Chinese delegation. "Never before had I been called on to make a speech underwater," he wrote, adding: "The things one thinks one is doing for England!!!"

But what is England thinking of the things "one" is doing? There is more than the Prince's literary reputation at stake. Information emerged from his court battle with The Mail on Sunday last week that has placed in question his suitability for the throne. Critics say his self-appointed role as political "dissident", as well as his inability to manage his own staff, combine to undermine confidence in him.

A vivid account of the Prince's inability to respect the constitutional convention to avoid politically contentious issues was given in court by Mark Bolland, his deputy private secretary between 1997 and 2002. "He would readily embrace the political aspects of any contentious issue he was interested in," states Mr Bolland in a witness statement read out in court.

The former aide also told the court that he had been authorised to leak to selected newspapers the Prince's views on a foreign power, China, and issues of the day such as GM foods. In short, Mr Bolland said, the Prince regards himself as a "dissident" against the "prevailing political consensus".

Mr Bolland's intervention is all the more lethal against the background of the Conservative renaissance under David Cameron. The Prince's concerns chime with many of those espoused by Mr Cameron, from fox-hunting to volunteering. The backing of his charity, the Prince's Trust, for a Tory-run volunteering scheme has, as we report today, caused irritation and alarm in the Government.

It follows an on-the-record comment from the Prince's press spokesman, Paddy Harverson, that Mr Cameron's first month in office was "amazing" and press reports of a "meeting of minds" between the heir and the new Tory leader. "You couldn't put a wafer between them on most of the big issues," one courtier told The Sunday Telegraph.

The triumph of an old Etonian who has successfully argued that his birth should not debar him from high office cannot but be regarded approvingly in royal circles.

Tony Blair might publicly say that the Prince does an "amazing job for Britain", but many of his ministers can barely stand his constant interventions against the "prevailing political consensus". One, Alun Michael, put the case tartly to the Prince's face when the heir harangued him over the challenges faced by farmers and other "traditional workers" in the aftermath of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Mr Michael reminded Prince Charles that another traditional group of workers had had to change and adapt to changing circumstances - the miners.

The Prince is not easily discouraged, however. One Cabinet minister receives "a letter once every one or two months". "Some are reasonable, others are just whinges and we just ignore them," says the minister's aide.

The delicate balance that has been struck by New Labour and Buckingham Palace must somehow survive the departure of Mr Blair, who is genuinely well respected by the Queen and her most senior courtiers. Further harrumphs from her son can only disturb this sensitive equilibrium at a critical time.

Who knows what further bombshells are contained in the remaining seven - as yet unpublished - journals? Should Mr Justice Blackburne rule that the Prince cannot regard them as his private property, we can presumably look forward to more of his thoughts on Mr Blair and his ministers.

The story of how The Mail on Sunday came by the journals provides a fascinating insight into the Prince's strange world - and it is one that does him little credit. The newspaper's source appears to be another of his former aides, Sarah Goodall. Mr Bolland and Ms Goodall worked in a suite of rooms in St James's Palace that, according to one courtier, contained "four computers and a chandelier".

Mr Bolland told the court that it was an "old fashioned" office that did not have email. "The Prince's office had a long-standing reputation for being chaotic, with phone calls not being answered, correspondence remaining unanswered for great lengths of time, people being late for meetings, things going missing, etc."

It seems to have been an unpleasant place to work. It is said that Ms Goodall had a poor relationship with her black secretarial colleague, Elaine Day, who later took the Prince to an industrial tribunal complaining of racism.

Ms Goodall, ironically, left his private office after being put through a dismissal process by Mr Bolland, her immediate boss. One of her jobs had been to write up the Prince's journals when he returned from an official trip abroad. "She would be at the photocopier late at night producing reams of paper," recalled the Prince's former deputy private secretary in his statement.

It was reported last week that it was Ms Goodall who gave the journals to the newspaper but that she then had second thoughts and tried to get them back. It was too late, and copies now rest, presumably in a safe in the Sunday tabloid's Kensington headquarters.

Three of Prince Charles's closest staff have, therefore, taken their revenge on him in one way or another in the past couple of years. It is not a record of which any manager would be proud. A survey in The Daily Telegraph yesterday reported the unsurprising news that half the British public think that the Prince is not much good at choosing his staff.

Mr Bolland, while credited with preparing public opinion for Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall, is also targeted by Alastair Campbell as a "gossip" who used to refer to Prince Charles as "Princeypoos". But those attempting to lay the blame at Mr Bolland's door must answer the question of who advised the Prince to take on a powerful and rich newspaper group in such a questionable case. Sir Michael Peat, the man sent by the Queen to "sort out" her son, is himself now just as much a part of the problem.

A key figure close to the case says: "We could have sorted all this out in private but the problem was that there was no one in Clarence House to talk to any more."

In Buckingham Palace, there is barely concealed dismay. "It was a decision for him," sighs one senior source, which was all he could say about the court case.

The Prince must now wait for Mr Justice Blackburne to decide whether the case should be decided at once in his favour or should go to full trial. If a full trial is ordered, it may be that the Prince himself is called to the witness box, something that the palace wants to avoid at all costs.

Even if the Prince wins his journals back - and with them the legal precedent that he has the same right to privacy as an ordinary citizen - he is likely to come under greater pressure than ever to keep away from politics. In Whitehall, however, there is every expectation that the familiar violet-inked letters will continue to drop through the door.

WHAT THE PRINCE-WATCHERS SAY

The body language expert

"He shows insecurity, intolerance and nervousness and struggles to look happy "

Judi James

The psychologist

"He wrestles with self-criticism and anger, was victimised by a cruel father and is angry with authority "

Dr Oliver James

The graphologist

"His writing shows a cautious nature, patience, warmth and creativity, but he is also a loner "

Margaret Webb