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Blair defends Prince Charles in private diary row

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LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) Prime Minister Tony Blair sprung to the defence of Prince Charles today, saying the heir to the throne was perfectly entitled to express his views and had never taken sides in party politics.

Queen Elizabeth's eldest son was plunged into a constitutional row this week when legal action he took to defend his privacy spectacularly backfired.

Instead of gagging a newspaper that printed extracts from his diaries, Charles had to suffer the embarrassment of seeing a former aide telling the High Court of his propensity to dispense political advice to all and sundry.

In Britain, the royal family is expected to steer clear of political controversy.

But at his monthly news conference, Blair was quick to support Charles, saying: ''He is perfectly entitled to express his views.'' ''I think that Prince Charles does an amazing job for the country,'' he added.

A fervent opponent of genetically modified foods and the ''monstrous carbuncles'' of modern architecture, and a firm supporter of fox hunting, Charles is renowned for bombarding government ministers with memos.

But Blair said: ''They are not views that I have ever, ever regarded as party political.'' ''I personally don't think it has ever caused any difficulties for ministers. I have never found it difficult at all, I have to say.'' Charles is suing the Mail on Sunday newspaper for publishing extracts of his private journals covering a trip to Asia for the 1997 handover of the British colony of Hong Kong to China.

Charles has argued his journals should remain private. But the journal at the centre of the case, which he titled ''The Great Chinese Takeaway'', was released on Wednesday to journalists covering the proceedings.

Charles will have to wait a while to hear if he has won the case. Submissions ended at the High Court on Thursday and the judge said he would give his ruling ''as soon as possible'' but not next week as he is on holiday.

In the diaries, Charles said the Blair government was always in such a hurry, complaining ''They then take decisions based on market research and focus groups.'' Blair could not resist taking a light-hearted dig at Charles at his press conference.

Asked by reporters if he felt Charles had overstepped the bounds, Blair quipped to much laughter: ''I don't think I can answer that question until I have had the focus group.'' REUTERS MP HS2206

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