Cameron backs Prince Andrew over sex offender row

7th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

The British government threw its full backing behind Prince Andrew on Monday amid calls for him to quit as an unpaid trade ambassador over his ties with a convicted US sex offender.

Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said "we fully support" Queen Elizabeth II's second son, despite growing criticism of his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy businessman jailed for soliciting underage prostitutes.

The prince's spokesman has denounced the "insinuations" in the press, but the row is an unwelcome distraction for the royals just weeks before the wedding of his nephew, Prince William, and Kate Middleton on April 29.

Andrew's ex-wife Sarah Ferguson has become embroiled in the row after it emerged that Epstein gave her £15,000 ($24,000, 17,000 euros) at the prince's request to help pay off her reported multi-million-pound debts.

She told London's Evening Standard that the prince was a "first-rate father and first-rate man... who does not know how to tell an untruth or behave dishonourably".

"I personally, on behalf of myself, deeply regret that Jeffrey Epstein became involved in any way with me," she said, adding that taking his money was a "gigantic error of judgment on my behalf".

Lawmakers called for Prince Andrew to be removed from his role.

Chris Bryant, of the main opposition Labour party, told the BBC: "I think we should be dispensing with his services. I think the charge list against him is so long now that he is a bit of an embarrassment."

The Times also urged Andrew to quit, saying: "It is high time Prince Andrew relinquished his role, ended his visits to assorted despots and spared his mother and his country further embarrassment."

A government source told the Daily Telegraph that "there won't be many tears shed if he resigns".

However, Cameron's spokesman said the prime minister "thinks he is doing a good job" and had confidence in the prince, telling reporters: "We fully support Prince Andrew is his role as trade envoy."

Business Secretary Vince Cable had earlier denied reports that ministers would try to downgrade the prince's role.

"He is a volunteer, he has offered to perform these roles, and I think it is down to him essentially to judge the position he wants to be in," he said.

Buckingham Palace welcomed the support and said that Andrew, known as the Duke of York, "remains committed to the role of special representative".

Andrew was reportedly a frequent guest at Epstein's home in Florida and newspapers have published a photograph of him with his arm around 17-year-old Virginia Roberts, reportedly an erotic masseuse who worked for Epstein.

There is no suggestion that Andrew himself has done anything wrong, and Alastair Watson, the prince's private secretary, condemned the speculation.

"The Duke has known Mr. Epstein since being introduced to him in the early 1990s. The insinuations and innuendos that have been made in relation to the duke are without foundation," Watson wrote in a letter to The Times Saturday.

Meanwhile, Andrew also faces questions over his links to Sakher el-Materi, the son-in-law of the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in January.

The Guardian revealed that he gave a lunch for Materi last year with British businessmen at Buckingham Palace, but a spokesman for the prince insisted it was a "legitimate public engagement".

In the past, Andrew has also come under fire for his ties to a billionaire from Kazakhstan who bought his home for way over the asking price.

And last year, diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website showed US officials were shocked by the "rude" prince's "astonishing display of candour" during a business trip to Kyrgyzstan.

© 2011 AFP

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