RICHARD KAY on Prince Andrew's invite for Epstein to Royal Ascot

RICHARD KAY: A sordid contest for the truth that sullies the royals’ name even further

For more than two weeks, his reputation has teetered on the edge. 

Originally, Prince Andrew had convinced himself that by broadcasting directly from Buckingham Palace to the public, he would appeal to the British sense of fair play.

Instead, it proved to be extraordinarily naive, because, for Andrew, the Jeffrey Epstein drama is a never-ending horror show.

And when a programme with a pedigree such as BBC TV’s Panorama turns its focus on the private life of the Queen’s second son, the outcome can be far from certain.

Jeffrey Epstein (right) looks on as Prince Andrew chats with Caroline Stanley, Countess of Derby, at Royal Ascot Ladies Day in 2000

Certainly the appearance of his accuser, Virginia Roberts, did not match the lofty arrogance or shuddering pomposity of the Prince’s encounter with Emily Maitlis. Nor was there a smoking gun that could despatch what was left of Andrew’s credibility.

But what she did do was just enough to reignite the whole sordid scandal. Slowly but steadily, a clearer picture of this unedifying puzzle is beginning to emerge.

And, for Andrew, that cannot be good news.

How he must now regret the folly of his decision to go public. He will never know for sure if speaking out provoked the woman who says she was a sex slave to challenge his claims that many found flimsy to the point of unbelievability.

Perhaps it would have made no difference. After all, Roberts has been peddling her allegations for years.

But her intervention on prime-time television has done one thing though, turning the saga into a contest for the truth. For both figures have essentially accused the other of lying.

He SAID he has no recollection of meeting her. She said they danced and he sweated all over her. He said that was not possible, that he could not sweat because of a medical condition. She said he was ‘sweating all over me . . . like it was raining, basically’.

As for the photograph in which his arm is around her bare midriff, Andrew had no memory of it and has hinted at trickery with the picture. Just another of the ‘ridiculous excuses’, according to Ms Roberts. 

Ghislaine Maxwell with Prince Andrew at Ascot in July 2000

While this unquestionably is damaging for Prince Andrew, it is another deeply troubling episode for the Royal Family.

Just as the repercussions of his ill-judged Newsnight interview were beginning to be damped down, the ordeal has been stoked up again.

But then Panorama has a way of casting a long shadow over the royals.

Twenty-four years ago, Martin Bashir’s electrifying interview with Princess Diana precipitated the biggest crisis in the House of Windsor since the Abdication.

How tragic that after last night’s gripping hour of television with his accuser, viewers were left asking who was the more plausible, a man who fought for his country with great courage in the Falklands War or a girl who was trafficked as a sex slave by a billionaire paedophile.

Andrew risked everything by going public and perhaps his lofty self-confidence was the result of being praised too highly, too soon in life. Or perhaps, like so many who make their way into influential political positions, he felt impregnable.

Virginia Roberts had no risk to her reputation, her good name had been trashed the moment she became ensnared in Epstein’s vile games.

Might the Prince have been more convincing if he had adopted some of Miss Roberts’s techniques?

He was unrehearsed and even seemed unprepared for some of his questions. She, on the other hand, was almost word-perfect.

In a way, while the Roberts testimony was undeniably frank and certainly fruity — she described Andrew as ‘the most hideous dancer I’ve seen in my life’ — Panorama also produced some other compelling evidence.

Take, for example, the emails exchanged between the Prince and his friend — and the woman accused of being Epstein’s procurer — Ghislaine Maxwell. They show Virginia Roberts’s name written down by Andrew for the first time. Apparently sent from the Duke of York’s own computer on January 3, 2015, one says: ‘Let me know when we can talk. Got some specific questions to ask you about Virginia Roberts.’

This, remember, was the woman who Andrew told the BBC’s Emily Maitlis he had no recollection of even meeting. It raises many questions.

So what should we make of it? If he did know her intimately, would he refer to as ‘Virginia’? Or if they were strangers, might he not refer to her as ‘Miss Roberts’?

One thing’s for sure: the email links the Prince and the masseuse.

Then there is the photograph, taken at Royal Ascot in June 2000, years before most people had ever heard of Jeffrey Epstein. But there he was with Ghislaine Maxwell in the Royal Enclosure.

Four years after his divorce from the Duchess of York, Andrew, then just 40, was dashing, still the pin-up of the Royal Family. Contrast the handsome young man with the puffy, ageing Prince, now almost 60, squirming under Emily Maitlis’s forensic gaze.

The Ascot picture tells us that his friendship with Epstein was, if you like, hiding in plain sight. That day, he was surrounded by friends, accompanying him were the Earl and Countess of Derby.

That summer, financier Epstein had secured the first of his privileged royal entrees, an invitation to the ‘Dance of the Decade’, the fabulous party the Queen threw at Windsor Castle to mark not just her favourite son’s 40th, but also the Queen Mother’s centenary, Prince William’s 18th birthday and also the 50th and 70th respectively of Princess Anne and Princess Margaret.

Neither email nor photograph represents a killer fact, but the drip, drip, drip of detail.

In the end, last night’s Panorama is likely to be remembered as posing the simple question of which version of the truth is believed. Andrew gave his, flatly denying ever having had sex with Miss Roberts. Last night, she gave hers.

‘He knows what happened,’ she said referring to the Duke. 

‘I know what happened, and there’s only one of us telling the truth, and I know that’s me.

She said that however repellent she found dancing with Andrew, she had been under instructions from Maxwell and Epstein to keep him happy because that’s what they ‘would have expected from me’. 

When they had left Tramp nightclub, Miss Roberts said Ghislaine Maxwell gave her some instructions.

‘In the car, Ghislaine tells me that I have to do for Andrew what I do for Jeffrey — and that just made me sick.’

She said that later that evening she had sex with Andrew upstairs at Maxwell’s house in Belgravia.

With a theatrical flourish lacking from Andrew’s performance, she added: ‘I implore the people in the UK to stand up beside me, to help me fight this fight, to not accept this as being OK.

‘This is not some sordid sex story. This is a story of being trafficked.’

One thing from the programme is abundantly clear: Prince Andrew’s life has been based on connections, but it was just one contact whom he introduced to his royal world that has grievously damaged his reputation and sullied the good name of the Royal Family, too.           

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