Downing Street struggles to contain row over Prince Andrew's trade role

List of 'company endorsements' of Duke of York's envoy work contains tributes dating from four years ago

A Downing Street operation to shore up the position of Prince Andrew as Britain's special trade representative ran into trouble as the government struggled to take control of a row over his dealings with controversial business figures.

A list of "company endorsements" of the Duke of York's performance as Britain's special trade envoy, compiled by his private office, backfired when it emerged that many of the tributes were four years old.

An attempt by Downing Street to dismiss reports that ministers were preparing to downgrade the duke's role also ran into difficulties when No 10 sources made it clear that his position would become untenable if more damaging details emerged.

The operation to defend the duke came as his former wife issued a strong apology for accepting money from a convicted billionaire sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. The Duchess of York told the London Evening Standard she was guilty of a "gigantic error of judgment" for accepting £15,000 from Epstein to help her pay off her debts.

The duke has faced intense criticism in recent weeks over his friendship with Epstein, who is facing a new FBI investigation over allegations of his involvement with underage girls. A picture was released last week of the duke with his arm round Virginia Roberts, then aged 17, who claims she was sexually exploited by Epstein and his friends. The teenager said she met the prince, who allegedly enjoyed massages at Epstein's home. The prince categorically denies any wrongdoing or impropriety.

The duke's links with Epstein prompted a cabinet minister to tell the Guardian over the weekend that a "tasking review" would be used to downgrade his role as Britain's overseas trade envoy. The minister insisted, however, that the government could not force the duke out of the role.

Senior figures in Downing Street, alarmed by damaging headlines in the Guardian and other newspapers, ordered officials to launch an operation to rally to the duke's defence. A senior figure told the BBC that the government had no intention of removing him. But the source added that if more damaging details emerged about the duke's business and personal links his position would become untenable. As the BBC reported that the duke had been given what amounted to a yellow card, Downing Street intensified its defence amid fears that it could become entangled in a row with Buckingham Palace. The confusion put pressure on Craig Oliver, the former BBC News at Ten editor, in his second week as the new Downing Street director of communications.

Cameron's spokesman said at the daily 11am briefing that the prime minister had complete confidence in the duke. The spokesman said: "The prime minister thinks he is doing an important job and is making a major contribution and he is supportive of him in that role. We are not reviewing that role in any way. The government's position is very clear: that we support him in his role as trade envoy."

George Osborne endorsed the duke during a cabinet away-day in Derby. "We have confidence in him doing the job and we think he's done a good job in recent years. He's promoted British exports. What we want is everyone promoting British exports at the minute and Prince Andrew has done that."

Downing Street announced that a list of endorsements of the prince would be released to highlight strong support among business leaders for his role as trade envoy. A few hours later, shortly before 3.30pm, UK Trade and Investment released a list of 17 statements of support from business leaders under the headline "Company Endorsements".

The government body, which organises the duke's work as trade envoy, admitted that the list had been compiled by his office from a list of existing endorsements on his website dating back to 2007.

A UKTI spokeswoman said: "It has been compiled by his office. It is up on his website. It has been compiled over a period of time. Every trip he has been on people are asked for their feedback and it gets posted up.

"It is not this week. It is not in response to anything that has been happening this week. They are contemporaneous insofar as they are up on the website and they are still current because these are trips he has done not so long ago. It is 2007 onwards. Some will be really modern, some will be less modern."

Mike Gapes, a former Labour chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, called on the duke to stand down :"We need to be able to question our trade envoys about who they meet, what they do, what they do on behalf of our country … Because of his royal position, we can't do that."

However, Labour showed sensitivity over the affair when the leadership ordered Chris Bryant, the former Europe minister, and still a frontbencher, to stop calling for the duke to stand down.

Bryant was told to leave the duke alone after he told the Today programme that he should stand down because "he is a bit of an embarrassment".

A useful club in Team UK's bag?

Prince Andrew looked genuinely pained. His press officer looked nervous. The interview had not begun well. I had made the mistake of asking him to describe his "job" as special representative for UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government's trade promotion arm.

"What you fail to understand …" he answered, before sighing and tailing off. Royals have roles, not jobs, was his point, when he eventually deigned to make it. Given the recent furore over the prince's dealings with convicted paedophiles and deposed dictatorships, soon he may not have either.

It was 2006, and he was in Shanghai as part of a whirlwind trade tour of China. His advisers wanted to rebrand the prince as a serious, statesmanlike figure, based around his UKTI role.

The duke – as he is known among his entourage – did not help himself. He used a golfing analogy to describe his role as part of "Team UK", promoting British business abroad. He was one of many different clubs in the golf bag used by the government, depending on the situation, he explained.

His advisers were paranoid about me using these quotes, for fear it would reinforce his image as a golfing playboy.

At an exclusive, 90-minute interview in his apartment in Buckingham Palace a year later, he displayed a remarkable level of openness for someone who is regularly pilloried in the press.

It is true that he had met me on the China trip the year before, and obviously felt I was trustworthy. But he seemed oblivious to the pitfalls of engaging so freely, most notably when talking about the cost of his trips to the taxpayer. I told him the £500,000 annual cost could be a considered a "bargain".

He did not appear to notice the flippancy of the remark, pressing on unflinchingly: "In terms of the return on investment to the UK, I would suggest that £500,000 is cheap at the price." His press officer blenched, fearful of how his comments would appear in print. Tim Webb


Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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