Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, KG, GCVO, CD, ADC, turns sixty-two this month. It is long past the age at which a man is expected to stop being a cause of concern and embarrassment to his parents. And yet Andrew, who is said to be the Queen’s favourite child, has exposed his mother to the greatest threat to the royal family’s reputation in living memory.

As he awaits the decision of a New York judge in the sex assault case brought by Virginia Giuffre, the prince finds himself in the deeply unedifying position of trying to evade court with a secret silencing deal struck by his late friend and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.

The agreement, signed in 2009, stated that in exchange for being paid $500,000, Giuffre, then using her maiden name of Roberts, would “release … and forever discharge … second parties and any other person or entity who could have been included as a potential defendant … from all, and all manner of, action and actions.”

Giuffre maintains that in 2001 when she was seventeen she was trafficked by Epstein and his sometime girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell to have sex with the prince on three occasions —once in Maxwell’s house in Belgravia, where the infamous photograph was taken of her with the then forty-two-year-old prince’s hand around her waist, on the second occasion at Epstein’s mansion in New York and finally on Epstein’s private island, Little St. James in the US Virgin Islands, with a group of other girls. The prince denies all allegations and says he has no recollection of ever having met Giuffre.

The prince’s lawyers have taken an aggressive approach to protecting their client. They first argued that the court summons had not been properly served, then attempted to get the case thrown out on the grounds that Giuffre doesn’t live in the US.

Now they are seeking their client’s salvation with the grim fact that he qualifies as a potential defendant in any sex abuse case connected to Epstein. In other words, it appears his possible culpability is being used as his defence.

443 Price Andrew Alamy

Even if this legal loophole works, and the judge dismisses the case, it will be an outcome that will not clear the prince’s name, which his friends insist is his prime aim. Instead, added to all those letters that come after his title, will be a toxic question mark.

And that’s the best-case scenario for the prince. If, instead, the judge gives the go-ahead for the case to be heard, then the prince would be obliged to make a deposition and then, in the autumn, appear in court. He could in theory refuse to do either, but again the optics would be disastrous. However, if he did go to court, the world’s media would be offered a daily diet of sordid details. And if he were to lose the case, courtiers suggest he may no longer be able to travel internationally, for fear of criminal extradition.

Given that Giuffre has waited over twenty years for recognition of the damage that she says was done to her, that settlement would presumably involve a large financial figure —which raises the question of who will pay it. The prince has spent the better part of his adult life cosying up to the super-rich, precisely because he lacks that kind of money himself. So again his mother, who is thought to have bankrolled his defence, would be his benefactor. That brings into the spotlight the contested question of whether her wealth is private or a product of her position as head of state, and therefore subject to some kind of taxpayer oversight.

Monarchists insists her private wealth and her public dispensation are completely separate things, but any settlement paid by the Queen would provide republicans with ballistic ammunition. What seems extraordinary is that this conclusion has been moving steadily closer for more than a decade, and the prince, and all those he has repeatedly reassured of his innocence, have been frozen in a state of denial, just hoping that it will all go away.

Shortly after he was photographed with Epstein in 2010 strolling in Central Park, New York, following the American’s release from prison on charges of procuring a minor for prostitution, Andrew was removed from his position as international trade envoy and redeployed on other matters. One problem is that there has been no comprehensive strategy across the royal family on what to do. Although its members talk about the family as “the firm”, lending the idea of disciplined business entity, this is a misconception.

A mixture of the Queen’s protectiveness, the wary exasperation of other royal households and Andrew’s stubborn resistance to soundadvice, left him to forge his own ad hoc strategy. It resulted in his fateful decision to put his side of the story across in the excruciating November 2019 Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis.

Looking back at that disastrously revealing encounter, it is notable how often the prince used Maxwell to try to put some distance between himself and Epstein (who hosted Andrew on many occasions and gave large sums of money to his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, and possessed sixteen separate phone numbers for the prince). At one point he describes the financier as a “plus one.”

But now that Maxwell herself has been convicted of sex trafficking a minor, among other serious charges, it leaves the prince with no one to saddle with his poor judgment of character. In among a catalogue of evasions and failing memories, his one line of consistent defence is that he was not aware of anything untoward going on in any of the Epstein or Maxwell households at which he stayed. For many observers, this is simply not a credible proposition.

When challenged on his apparent blindness by Maitlis, the prince came up with an explanation that seems as a self-indictment rather than an exoneration. He effectively said that he lived among servants all the time and was used to not taking any notice of them —even, presumably, if they were scantily clad teenage girls.

Of course, Andrew would not be the first obnoxious royal, nor the first dissolute prince. The institution’s history is full of badly behaved characters. But we are now living in the third decade of the 21st century, in a time of transition not just for the royal family, as they prepare for the prospect of a new monarch, but society at large.

Ten years ago, in the pre-#MeToo days, a movie mogul such as Harvey Weinstein could terrorise and abuse women with impunity. His friend Epstein all but got away with rape and sex trafficking thanks to the political influence he was able to exert.

And back in 2011 it may well have seemed that Giuffre’s allegations against Andrew were destined to remain the outlandish cry of an inconsequential person, an unprovable rumour that would fade along with all the other neglected claims made against the rich and powerful.

Even a photograph taken inside Maxwell’s home could be dismissed as fake —although how could a young woman get access to an image of the prince that no one else has ever seen to put it in a mocked-up picture?

It never did add up, and with the passage of time, the attempt to remove himself from that troubling scene in his friend’s house looks more and more like a desperate tactic. Just as the prince’s claim that he stayed with Epstein for four days to tell him that he could no longer be his friend out of a sense of “honour” was always far-fetched and miserably self-serving.

It seems unlikely after all these years that the prince will change his story, and if there is a settlement it will doubtless come with a non-acceptance of any personal responsibility. Yet this is unquestionably a watershed case. It’s hard to imagine that any royal will again be afforded the indulgence that has accompanied Andrew around the globe.

Although the monarchy will survive this current crisis, it may well do so in a more streamlined version with fewer passengers. The days of overgrown playboys trading on the family name in exchange for paid-for company and pay-offs to ex-wives should be numbered. And if they are it will be in no small part due to the efforts of a group of women from largely humble backgrounds who refused to back down in the face of their abusers.

“I am looking forward to vindicating my rights as an innocent victim and pursuing all available recourse,” Giuffre said seven years ago. “I’m not going to be bullied back into silence.” As even Prince Andrew would have to concede, she has certainly not allowed that to happen.

Published in The Guardian on January 8, 2022.