In recent times, Prince Andrew has been the subject of both a televised comedy musical and a number of formal council petitions from Brits who no longer wish their street to be called Prince Andrew Drive or Prince Andrew Way. Yet, amazingly, the duke somehow still remains the most ridiculous thing about his own life. Barely a week goes by without some wince-inducing story about his comeback plans finding its well-sourced way into the news.
After many years of non-cooperation with any number of attempts to get to the bottom of her allegations against him, Andrew last year finally settled a civil claim with Virginia Giuffre, who was trafficked by the deceased paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein. The settlement did not include any admission of guilt. Giuffre is now reported to be writing a book about her experiences with Epstein and beyond, and though her settlement with the duke would prevent her speaking out in detail about Prince Andrew, multiple articles suggest he is ready to launch a lawsuit should she mention him. “Andrew and his lawyers are ready to go on the attack,” a “source familiar with the case” told the Mail at the weekend. “Then her claims will be put under scrutiny for the first time in a court of law.” Finally! I don’t know about you but I always pay a reported £12m to settle a case out of court, when all I really want is for its claims to be heard in a court.
Then, last week, allies of the duke let it be known that “details are about to be made public which will change people’s perceptions of him”. Intriguing. Are those details … could they possibly be … a photograph subsequently published on the front page of the Daily Telegraph last Saturday? Unclear. But oh dear me, where to start on this picture, released by Ian Maxwell, the brother of Epstein’s convicted accomplice, Ghislaine?
You will almost certainly have seen this truly cursed image by now. If you somehow swerved it, however, the details are as follows. Two (mercifully clothed) adults are sitting in the bath of Ghislaine’s former Belgravia mews house, which you will recall is where Giuffre alleges she was first coerced into sexual activity with Prince Andrew. Around the faces of the two people in the photo – and I can barely believe I’m typing this, but here we are – there are elasticated laminated A4 sheets of paper, worn as masks. Think of it as Eyes Wide Shit. One mask bears the face of 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre, from the notorious original photo of her with the duke’s hand round her waist, taken in the house in question on the night in question. Odd choice – but not the oddest, let’s face it. The other figure is wearing a contemporary photo of Prince Andrew, 62, which only serves to emphasise the bizarre grossness of what the reader is being asked to behold and consider. Unbelievably, actual lawyers had something to do with this nutso line of defence, which the Telegraph chose to headline: “The photo that ‘clears Duke’ over bath sex”.
We might begin by querying whether “bath sex” is really the correct term for alleged rape of a trafficked teenager. But wait, because there’s more. The image is accompanied by quotes from Ian. I always feel I missed the point in time that the utterances of Ian Maxwell began being treated with something other than quizzical contempt. When precisely did this switcheroo happen? Anyway, here is Maxwell on the photo, which he seems to have personally staged. “I am releasing my photographs now because the truth needs to come out,” explains Ian, apparently dialling in from the Arkham Asylum of British public life. “They show conclusively that the bath is too small for any kind of sex frolicking.” Two points. One: they don’t show anything of the sort. And two: What? WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!?!
“The family have even supplied the bath’s dimensions,” gibbers the Telegraph, “revealing that the base of the bathtub measures 1,359mm by 380mm.” I’m not sure any newspaper in the land can credibly take the high ground on the lunacies of other publications. There but for the grace, and all of that. But I don’t imagine I was the only reader who saw this picture online and had to go to the source to check whether that really and truly was the actual front page. Yet it honestly was. Less of a marmalade-dropper, more of a stomach-vacater.
If that photo wasn’t the gamechanging gambit at which Andrew’s allies were hinting, perhaps it was last week’s interview with Ghislaine herself. In this, Maxwell clutched one of the visiting-room telephones at the Florida prison in which she is currently serving a 20-year-sentence for her crimes, and explained through the glass that the original photo of the duke with his arm round Giuffre (in which she herself is pictured smirking stage left) was a fake. If that was the de-smoked gun, then unfortunately all it took was for the news photographer who had originally snapped the image from a hard copy Giuffre handed him to produce his image of the back of that photo. This displays the standard developers’ date stamp. It turns out to have been an ordinary printed snap, processed at a one-hour lab at Walgreens on 13 March 2001, three days after the date on which Giuffre alleged she was first forced into sexual activity with Andrew. The news photographer had gone back through his archives after being incensed by Ghislaine’s interview last week. As he put it: “I thought, ‘here we go again’.”
And here we do seem to keep going again. Quite how long the duke will fail to realise his comeback is doomed is not clear. News that he would no longer have offices at Buckingham Palace, which is undergoing a £369m refurbishment, was tempered by hints that he would still probably be granted rooms at nearby St James’s Palace. But for what, given he appears to have nothing to do other than mount a wildly ill-advised rearguard action against deeply unsavoury claims he decided to settle?
Andrew no longer enjoys the range of confected positions that enabled him to be helicoptered between the world’s finest golf courses. Does one really need a suite of damask-walled and lavishly gilded rooms with liveried attendees for his current activities? I can’t help feeling a lock-up with a single swinging lightbulb somewhere off the M25 might be more appropriate in the circumstances. That is the only staged photo any of us wishes to see. Failing that, a silent retirement for this lifelong self-saboteur would be in all interests, including his own.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist. This article first appeared in the Guardian