Less than two months before a fairy-tale wedding anticipated by much of the world, Britain's royal family finds itself fighting an inconvenient distraction: revelations that Prince Andrew, the Queen's second son, is friends with a convicted sex offender, was photographed with a teenage prostitute, and has been accused of ties to Moammar Gadhafi's Libyan regime.
The Duke of York also hosted the son of the Tunisian dictator shortly before a popular uprising drove him from power — and the buildup of embarrassment has sparked calls that he be stripped of his role as special U.K. trade representative.
Buckingham Palace is in damage control mode as it attempts to keep the public's focus on the April 29 wedding between Prince William and tabloid favourite Kate Middleton, his university sweetheart.
British officials have rallied to Andrew's defence. The foreign secretary expressed his "confidence" in Andrew on Sunday, and a U.K. trade official voiced support for the prince to remain in the position, saying he does a "very valuable job."
Still, pressure is mounting, and there is growing speculation over how long Andrew can hang on to his post.
On Monday, Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department promoted U.K. exports, said Prince Andrew will have to decide whether he can continue his role as a trade envoy amid the controversy.
He said that Andrew had volunteered for his trade promotion role and couldn't be fired, so it was up to him whether he continued.
"Obviously there are conversations that will take place with him about what he is to do in future. That is simply a matter of managing the relationship," Cable said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Andrew has courted trouble before: His much-publicized divorce from Sarah Ferguson, her subsequent missteps, massive debt, a tell-all interview and a videotaped attempt to sell a U.K. tabloid access to Andrew stand in stark contrast to the glow surrounding William and Kate Middleton's courtship and upcoming nuptials.
'Air miles Andy'
Since becoming a special trade representative in 2001, Andrew has drawn criticism for reportedly taking lavish trips in his role as an unpaid trade ambassador.
"Prince Andrew, or air miles Andy as he is also known, flies all over the place on British trade missions, trying to drum up business for Britain, and this costs — just these trips alone — several million dollars a year," the CBC's Nancy Durham reported from London Monday. "And he reportedly travels with half a dozen people in his entourage,"
The latest revelations in the British media have centred on Andrew's friendship with convicted U.S. pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and claims that Andrew also had close ties to Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, one of the Libyan leader's sons.
Photos recently published in the British media show Andrew strolling in a park with Epstein — the New York billionaire jailed for soliciting underage prostitutes in Florida. Most recently, a photograph emerged showing Andrew with his arm around the waist of the teenage prostitute at the centre of that case.
"No one is saying that Prince Andrew participated in any sexual escapades, but it is being reported he did receive a massage when he visited Epstein's Florida mansion about 10 years ago," Durham reported. "And we’re told this didn’t involve sexual contact."
While there has been no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of Andrew, the sum of events has prompted some soul-searching over whether the prince is a suitable representative for U.K. interests abroad.
"The duke recognizes that his association with Jeffrey Epstein was, in retrospect, unwise," a person familiar with the matter said, noting that Andrew is not likely be photographed with Epstein again anytime soon.
Sarah Ferguson also under fire
Andrew's ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, confirmed in an interview Monday in the Evening Standard newspaper that she received financial help from Epstein. But she claimed to have known nothing about his background and vowed to repay the $24,000 he advanced to settle a debt to her former personal assistant, Johnny O'Sullivan.
"I am just so contrite I cannot say," the duchess was quoted as saying. "Whenever I can I will repay the money and will have nothing ever to do with Jeffrey Epstein ever again."
The payment was handled through Andrew's office, the duchess said, and she wasn't directly involved. There was no immediate comment from Andrew's office.
But Prince Andrew's difficulties go beyond links to Jeffrey Epstein. Last week, British lawmaker Chris Bryant claimed that Prince Andrew had close links to Seif Gadhafi. Bryant called for Andrew to be fired, telling the House of Commons, "Isn't it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?"
Buckingham Palace on Sunday rejected Bryant's claims, saying Andrew's interactions with the Gadhafi regime — and Tunisia's ousted dictatorship, too — fell within the mandate of his job as special trade representative.
"It was part of the British government's engagement with Libya at the time," a palace spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.
The spokesman confirmed Andrew met Moammar Gadhafi twice. Both meetings were of public record and should not come as news, the spokesman said, adding that Andrew is "fully committed to his role as special representative."
"It is understood that he has the support of the government behind him," the spokesman said.
Government officials backed up that claim Sunday, citing Andrew's role in nurturing business interests.
"The Duke of York has made a valuable contribution to British business," a spokesman for government trade body UKTI said. "We continue to support him," he added, on customary condition of anonymity.
Foreign Secretary William Hague also expressed his full confidence in Andrew's work.
"I'm not an expert in ... the embarrassments," Hague told the BBC. "But certainly I've seen around the world a lot of good that he has done for this country."