It began with an article lurking deep in last Thursday's Spectator: a piece dripping with snobbish bile by the rightwing columnist Simon Heffer, laying into the Prince of Wales's spin doctor Mark Bolland. He described Bolland as "lip gloss" and spoke of him "furthering the interests of his master by making him look good next to the collection of fuddy-duddies, losers, wasters and misfits that much of the press would have us believe is the House of Windsor".
The polemicist had hawked his piece round several national newspapers before it found its home at the magazine owned by Lord (Conrad) Black. Two days later a strikingly similar and even less restrained piece appeared in Black's Daily Telegraph, asking: "Has the puppet-master of St James's finally pulled one string too many?"
Apparently written by a junior reporter named Peter Foster - one insider yesterday said it had "gone through a number of word processors first" - it had been scheduled to appear at some distant date in the Telegraph's Saturday magazine. But in the wake of the Spectator piece, it was yanked to unexpected prominence on the instructions of the paper's editor, Charles Moore, an Old Etonian occasionally referred to by colleagues as Lord Snooty.
Short on fact and long on opinion, it added to Bolland's own list of pseudonyms by referring to him as Lord Blackadder, and asserted that there was growing anger against his activities from Buckingham Palace.
A strange, incidental detail relating to the prince's alleged snub of an obscure former friend and unctuous Norfolk landowner called Hugh van Cutsem may have had something to do with the genesis of the piece. Foster was at Ampleforth with Van Cutsem's son, Edward.
Yesterday the Daily Mail hit back in a double-page spread, defending the honour of Bolland, the prince of spin, and taking a few incidental swipes at its lordlier rival, describing the Daily Telegraph as "the self-regarding, downmarket broadsheet that believes it represents the Establishment but is in fact, as its own advertising agency told it, alarmingly out of touch with the real world".
So what can be behind these extraordinary tirades over an obscure palace servant? It would appear that the normal Fleet Street rivalry between two papers competing for the same shrinking Tory audience is mirroring the rivalry be tween Prince Charles and his staff at St James's Palace and courtiers glowering at them from Buckingham Palace, just across Green Park.
No love is lost between Moore and the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, although their employees often swap masters and the pair have been known to lunch together occasionally. In miniature, this is a case of the Telegraph backing Buck House versus the Daily Mail championing St James's Palace. Once it was the Telegraph that took Charles's side against Diana and the Mail that supported the princess. At St James's the Telegraph was once seen as reliable. No more, it seems.
In the circumstances, it was just as well that Heffer - a Mail columnist - was out shooting yesterday. Some said that Dacre would have sacked him for so dramatically undermining the house line with his piece in the Spectator had he not been such a prized contributor.
First the facts: Mark Bolland, the prince's 35-year-old, state-school-educated deputy private secretary, is the man credited with helping to restore Charles's battered public reputation in the wake of his divorce from Princess Diana and her subsequent death. It is thanks to his meticulous choreography that Camilla Parker-Bowles has been increasingly accepted as his consort.
He has attracted much hostility, despite the fact that his superior, Stephen Lamport, has been the major influence on the change of fortunes enjoyed by St James's Palace in the four years since the princess died. It is simply that Bolland is an easier target to assail.
Now the spin: Bolland, with a background that many courtiers would find not just unusual but positively exotic - son of a building worker, chemistry graduate from a northern university - is seen as being altogether too successful in promoting his "principal". There is jealousy as well as snobbery involved. In the current state of the House of Windsor, you might think it would be impossible for a PR man to be too good at his job, but old habits die hard among the courtier class.
It has hardly been a good year for the Firm's image generally. First there was Sophiegate - the Countess of Wessex's spectacular falling for the wiles of a News of the World reporter dressed up as a sheikh and her boasting about how great a part her royal connections could play in assisting his business ambitions.
Then there was her maladroit attempt to make amends by giving an interview to the same paper - designed to keep the phoney sheikh out of things - in which she asserted that her husband, Prince Edward, was not gay. Then there were those pictures of Prince Andrew cavorting with topless women on holiday just prior to taking up his new job promoting British industry abroad.
And, to cap it all, there was a fresh Ardent scandal. Edward's film crew defied a media agreement by remaining at St Andrews University for several days attempting to film Prince William just after he started studying there. Charles was reliably said to be "incandescent" - who could possibly have told the media about that?
In the sort of language it once reserved for the loony left, the Mail claimed yesterday: "The Old Guard wants its revenge. These are the same kind of people, weak and ineffective, who have done so much to harm both the monarchy and Britain over the past 30 years.
"Should this vendetta succeed in driving out Mark Bolland, we can expect a rapid resurgence in everything we have come to despise about the misuse of royal privilege... when has the Old Guard been anything but disastrous for Britain?"
The men fingered as the culprits by the Daily Mail are Lord Luce, chamberlain to the royal household, and Lord Fellowes, the Queen's former private secretary. But the Mail's exuberance may exceed its knowledge.
Luce is a former wet Tory MP, junior Foreign Office minister (he resigned over the Falklands invasion) and former governor of Gibraltar. According to the Mail, "there is a view among palace courtiers that Luce, apart from being utterly ineffective, has been 'a bit silly, a bit naive' about Charles and Bolland".
Actually, two other national newspaper editors yesterday said they were convinced that Luce was innocent of any dirty-tricks campaign against Bolland. They were also none too convinced about Fellowes' involvement. When he once suggested tentatively that Bolland should be moved, the Queen is said to have replied: "But I always thought you discovered him, Sir Robert." It was true - he had recommended him to help Charles after his divorce on the advice of Lord Wakeham, chairman of the press complaints commission. Bolland was at that time director of the PCC.
But, if the Mail is to be believed, Fellowes' enthusiasm soon gave way to suspicion. It is alleged that Fellowes once even suggested to Farrer and Co, the Queen's lawyers, that a detective agency be employed to follow Bolland to see who he was briefing and meeting.
Fellowes is also known to be a friend of Heffer, but then this is a story studded with intriguing links. For example, Bolland's flatmate and boyfriend, Guy Black, succeeded him as PCC director, and many believe that Moore's attack on Bolland has more to do with his personal animus against Black than it does his anxiety about the skills of Bolland's spin-doctoring.
Lord Black almost certainly had no direct role in the skirmishes of the past week. He hovers above the fray. But there has undoubtedly been a breakdown of relations between St James's Palace and the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps it started with a ruckus last year over Moore's attempt to annexe Prince William's 18th birthday snaps - taken by a Telegraph photographer on a pooled basis for all national newspapers - to be used first in the Telegraph's magazine. He was eventually pressured into making them freely available at the same time.
There was also a series of articles marking Prince Philip's 80th birthday earlier this year in which the Telegraph none too subtly reflected the long-standing animosity in the relationship between Charles and his father. This is known to have severely rankled with the Prince of Wales, and continues to resonate.
The prince is deeply frustrated that his views on aspects of the Firm's performance have been ignored or downplayed in the regular gatherings to discuss the future management of the monarchy. In the so-called Way Ahead group - such is democracy - his views that the family's business activities should be separated from its royal duties only carry as much weight as those of his younger brothers.
Some of the minor royals are indeed nervous about the loss of their privileges and the fact that their use of grace-and-favour apartments might end with the death of the Queen. Jealousy about Charles and the media privacy accorded his young sons - a deal brokered by Bolland and Wakeham - also plays its part.
St James's Palace points out that, although their relations with Moore might be cool, they do still give stories to his journalists. The Telegraph on Saturday also printed (with less prominence and space) the heart-warming exclusive that Charles was pressing for clemency for the teenage demonstrator who smote him with a carnation during a recent visit to Latvia.
This is a first-class example of Bolland's acute work on Charles's behalf. But still the spinning against the spinner goes on. During research for this article we were told that the reason for the Mail siding so firmly with Bolland was that he and St James's Palace were "commercially linked" to Associated Newspapers, the Mail's owners, through a deal to publicise the prince's gardening book. In fact, the serialisation in the Mail's Weekend magazine was a straightforward case of the paper outbidding its rivals. There is no cash nexus here.
Moore may also reflect on Buckingham Palace's own distress at the attacks he is running on Bolland. It is felt that although many senior courtiers would like to see the end of Bolland, by publicly agitating to force him out, the Telegraph is only serving to cement him more firmly in his position.
As one of Moore's colleagues said yesterday: "Charles is seen as an uppity managing director of a branch office of the Firm who is too eager for the chairman's job." Unlike his employer, it seems Lord Snooty may have to whistle for his peerage.