His royal crassness


PROFILE PRINCE ANDREW:Prince Andrew’s enthusiasm for high living and the UK arms trade is doing his reputation no good now
the Middle East is in turmoil and a friend has been jailed for sex offences, writes MARK HENNESSY

IN BUCKINGHAM PALACE’S diary 2011 was marked down as a red-letter year for the British royal family, with the wedding in April of Prince William to Kate Middleton offering pomp, pageantry and glamour, along with global publicity.

On Tuesday, however, Queen Elizabeth II, who has endured some difficult years in her time, had to meet her second-eldest son, Prince Andrew, following torrents of publicity about his relationship with an American billionaire, Jeffrey Epstein, who has spent time in jail for having sex with an under-age prostitute. This initial publicity, and the series of stories that quickly followed, portrayed Andrew as a boorish prat, keen on the high life and beautiful women and prepared to consort with Epstein and a host of unpleasant dictators.

Nothing is known for certain about the meeting between the queen and her son, though “sources close to the palace” told the British press, which has gleefully taken up the opportunity to inflict damage on a royal, that she offered him her “full support”. Unfortunately for the 51-year-old father of two, who was divorced from his wife, Sarah Ferguson, in 1996 after 10 years of marriage, his mother’s support does not mean he is off the hook.

In 2007, after five years of trying, he sold Sunninghill Park, the house given to him by his mother when he married Ferguson in 1986. It went to a billionaire from Kazakhstan, who paid £3 million more than the asking price even though no other bidders were on the scene. With the fruits from Sunninghill, which has been described unflatteringly as a cross “between a Texas ranch and an out-of-town Tesco”, Andrew proceeded to lavish £7.5 million on the refurbishment of a replacement property.

Unlike some divorcees Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson parted amicably. In the years since they parted he has supported her through some of her financial trials, though, foolishly, he persuaded Epstein to give her £15,000 to settle some of her debts. But despite the maturity shown in his relationship with Ferguson, who still says she “would jump under a bus for him”, Andrew has never shaken off his image as a rather crass example of the British upper class.

This image was reinforced yet again last November when WikiLeaks published an account by a US diplomat of a lunch in Kyrgyzstan in 2008, when Andrew railed against those who sought to expose British bribery in order to win defence contracts. In his speech, applauded loudly by accompanying British executives, Andrew accused the British Serious Fraud Office of “idiocy” for investigating corruption allegations against the UK’s biggest arms company, BAE Systems, in relation to its effort to strike a deal with Saudi Arabia.

“He then went on to criticise ‘these journalists, especially from the Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere’ and make it harder for British businessmen to do business. The crowd practically clapped,” recounted the diplomat.

Told of demands for bribes by Kyrgyzstan ministers and officials, Andrew, who displayed “a neuralgic patriotism” about the UK, “laughed uproariously”, quipping, again to applause, that “all of this sounds exactly like France”, according to the diplomatic cable.

Doubts about his judgment have also been raised by his relationship with a leading member of the recently ousted Tunisian regime, Sakher al-Materi, who fled after January’s uprising and is currently facing a money-laundering investigation. Then there is his friendship with Libyan leader Col Gadafy’s son, Saif, though he was hardly alone in this in the days when London wooed Tripoli.

Since 2001 Andrew, the duke of York and fourth in line to the British throne, has acted as a trade and investment “ambassador” for the UK, squiring British businessmen, many of them arms manufacturers, around the Middle East and central Asia to meet oil sheikhs and dictators. Over lunch in Manhattan in 2009 Andrew insisted that he brought a cachet to the role that a non-royal couldn’t match.

“There are a number of things that are going on at the moment where people come to me in preference to going to somebody else,” he said. “We are still trusted, as it were, above and beyond governments. I have no political will or desire. My desire is to serve the United Kingdom to the best of my ability and to get the best for the United Kingdom.”

However, with the Middle East revolts shedding light on British arms sales in the region, the prince’s usefulness has been questioned. There is the implication that Andrew has not limited himself to representing Britons to foreigners but has also, on occasion, acted for wealthy foreigners in Britain. Now it has emerged that a former head of the British foreign office’s Middle East section, Stephen Day, has written to three Whitehall departments, saying Andrew is “the worst” person to have in such countries as Qatar, where his presence is seen as “crass”. This situation could worsen if he is called to give evidence in cases taken against Jeffrey Epstein by young women.

Faced with the initial flurry of Epstein stories 10 Downing Street went into a flap, alternating between private panic and tepid declarations of support. Initially Downing Street, fearful that serious new allegations against the prince were about to be unleashed, briefed that it would “shed no tears” if he stood down as trade ambassador. Then there was talk that his role was to be downgraded, followed later by declarations of the prime minister’s “full confidence” in him.

In a bid to defend him the organisation UK Trade and Investment published supportive quotes from leading British businessmen, only for it to emerge later in the day that some of these statements were three years old. In the days since, few of those same executives have come to the microphones to repeat their supportive words.

For now Andrew is pressing on. On Thursday he attended the Big Bang science fair in London, and he is shortly to visit a firm that makes parts for missiles and fighter aircraft. A planned trip to Saudi Arabia next month is still scheduled.

Portrayed as “a seller of death” and as “cheerleader in chief for the arms industry”, Andrew, does, however, have some grounds for complaint, as each and every one of his trade trips abroad is sanctioned only after talks between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street.

Andrew has been known to spend up to 120 days a year travelling on trips sponsored by UK Trade and Investment. In 2010 he visited Switzerland, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Dubai and China.

Between 2000 and 2009 the UK, according to freedom-of-information figures obtained by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, sold $93 billion worth of arms abroad. The same papers show that Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were “key” defence and security markets in 2010 and 2011.

Against a background of tumultuous events in the Middle East, which have cast British arms sales in the worst possible light, Prince Andrew’s own bad judgment and arrogance have dragged his reputation into the mire. He has also suffered from the inability of others to call him to order when the occasion demanded.None of that, though, necessarily, means he is finished. As one member of the House of Commons put it this week, “How do you sack a royal?”

Curriculum vitae

Who is he?The fourth in line to the British throne.

Why is he in the news?He is linked to a US billionaire jailed for sex offences, and with a host of unpleasant dictators.

Most appealing characteristics?He has maintained a warm relationship with his former wife, Sarah Ferguson.

Least appealing characteristics?Boorish, spoilt.

Most likely to say?“Can I interest you in our latest missile, sheikh?”

Least likely to say?“Right, I resign and I’m off to live in a monastery.”