As Prince Andrew steps down from duties amid the growing outrage over his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, this photo is an incriminating stain that no amount of carefully crafted denials can expunge, writes Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph

Say what you like about the Duke of York - and sponsors are deserting him in droves over the Jeffrey Epstein scandal - but he has been a good father. Prince Andrew's two girls clearly adore him.

He has also been decent towards Beatrice and Eugenie's mother, whose folio of follies would have seen her exiled to spousal Siberia by a less charitable man.

No wonder Sarah Ferguson posted a fierce defence on Instagram prior to her ex-husband's Newsnight interview, saying she was "deeply proud of this giant of a principled man".

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Prince Andrew repeatedly said:
Prince Andrew repeatedly said: "I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady." Photo / BBC

I'm afraid her gushing aroused suspicions that the Duchess might have had a hand in persuading the Duke to appear on TV, where he could "speak from the heart with honesty and pure real truth".

As it turned out, he could also parrot: "I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady."

That being well-known legalese for: "If I continue to deny I even met that American girl, they can't lay a finger on me."

Watching Emily Maitlis's evisceration of the Queen's second, and favourite, son - in a Buckingham Palace ballroom whose grandeur struggled to lend dignity to the tawdry subject - it was striking that the Prince had difficulty remembering anything that might land him in trouble.

And to claim that he visited the late billionaire financier's homes, and took trips to Epstein's private island aboard a jet that locals called the Lolita Express, without ever suspecting that his host was a total creep, is hard to swallow.

But when it came to providing an alibi, suddenly he was Sherlock Holmes.

The Duke's tone throughout the hour-long interview with Emily Maitlis was of someone who had been asked to clear up an incident at the golf club. Photo / BBC
The Duke's tone throughout the hour-long interview with Emily Maitlis was of someone who had been asked to clear up an incident at the golf club. Photo / BBC

On the date in March 2001 that his accuser, Virginia Roberts (now Giuffre), claimed he had sex with her at Ghislaine Maxwell's Belgravia house, Andrew recalled that he had collected Beatrice from a Pizza Express party in Woking.

He couldn't suppress a de-haut-en-bas smirk when he said that he remembered it clearly, "because going to Pizza Express in Woking is a very unusual thing for me to do".

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Her Majesty's subjects might consider it unwise to be snobbish about a pizza restaurant that is a treat for most British families.

Especially when your own recreations included hanging out with a sleazeball who is alleged to have used your friend to procure underage girls (though Maxwell strenuously denies any wrongdoing).

I have to suppress a shudder every time I see that photograph of the Duke with his arm around young Virginia's waist, while Ghislaine hovers behind them.

The picture is to Prince Andrew what Monica Lewinsky's dress was to Bill Clinton: an incriminating stain that no amount of carefully crafted denials can expunge. But is it genuine?

This picture of Prince Andrew and Virginia Roberts what Monica Lewinsky's dress was to Bill Clinton. Photo / File
This picture of Prince Andrew and Virginia Roberts what Monica Lewinsky's dress was to Bill Clinton. Photo / File

One of the Duke's feeble claims that it can't be, because he never wore casual clothes in London, has quickly been disproved.

If the photo turns out to be authentic, I'm afraid it means that a father who took his 12-year-old to a party that afternoon then spent that evening with a girl just five years older.

Do you think Andrew ever made that connection?

Or did 17-year-old Virginia fall into the category of "staff" for a royal who appears to have no curiosity about people beneath his station? The man is an emotional dunce.

As the mother of a daughter not much older than Virginia was then, I look at that slip of a girl and want to put a jumper on over her skimpy top. I want to ask her what she's doing there.

Does she know that she doesn't have to do any of the disgusting stuff Epstein wants her to do?

Did the Duke think those things? Or was he too keen to keep in with his billionaire buddy who "had the most extraordinary ability to bring extraordinary people together"?

Extraordinary is the word, Your Royal Highness.

"I never saw them," he told Maitlis, who confronted Andrew with testimony that girls were in and out of Epstein's New York mansion, where he stayed in 2010 during the four days it took him to inform the convicted paedophile that their friendship was no longer appropriate.

Prince Andrew's only regret is that he, a member of the Royal family, has been caught up in such a ghastly business. Photo / File
Prince Andrew's only regret is that he, a member of the Royal family, has been caught up in such a ghastly business. Photo / File

Telling Jeffrey over the phone would apparently have been "the chicken's way of doing it".

Let's be honest, it would also have deprived the Duke of what he called "absolutely vital" networking opportunities.

The rich and famous, including Woody Allen, gathered for a dinner party to mark Epstein's release after he'd served a 13-month sentence for soliciting a minor for prostitution. (Staying at the British Consulate, which Prince Andrew was entitled to do, would have been so dull by comparison.)

All credit to Maitlis. She managed not to laugh out loud when her interviewee - asked if he had any regrets - conceded: "I admit my judgment is coloured by my tendency to be too honourable."

Try telling that to the latest Epstein accuser.

On Monday, a 31-year-old woman said that he had taken her virginity when she was 15 at his New Mexico ranch, "in front of a wall of framed photographs of him shaking hands and smiling with celebrities and political leaders".

Epstein reportedly invited the child to his private island with a promise that she would meet Prince Andrew.

"It was clear that there was something very wrong with his lifestyle, and it didn't take a victim to see that," the woman said. "We were not hidden."

Could it be clearer? The big booby was used by Epstein to lend a gloss of royal respectability to his foul deeds.

And with his ossified, aristocratic code of conduct, the Duke genuinely seems to think phrases like "a manner unbecoming" are an adequate response to the abuse of young girls, by Epstein.

Ghislaine Maxwell, if she ever comes out of hiding, will surely face FBI questioning over allegations she picked up young girls at spas and introduced them to Jeffrey Epstein.
Ghislaine Maxwell, if she ever comes out of hiding, will surely face FBI questioning over allegations she picked up young girls at spas and introduced them to Jeffrey Epstein.

His only regret is that he, a member of the Royal family, has been caught up in such a ghastly business.

He neither seems to grasp, nor care about, the suffering Epstein and his extraordinary "opportunities" caused those less fortunate.

The Duke's tone throughout the hour-long interview was of someone who had been asked to clear up an incident at the golf club. It was awful.

He even admitted that he had seen Ghislaine earlier this year. Another appalling error of judgment.

The Balliol-educated Maxwell, if she ever comes out of hiding, will surely face FBI questioning over allegations she picked up young girls at spas and introduced them to Epstein (previously her boyfriend) with specific "massage" instructions.

Whatever the truth about her alleged involvement, whenever I see that picture of her hovering over the lovely young Virginia Roberts, I think of baby rabbits being fed to reptiles.

That image makes me recoil from the woman. Why doesn't the Duke?

Most damagingly of all, Virginia Roberts-Giuffre, now 35, has given an interview to BBC Panorama repeating the accusation that she was forced to have sex with the Duke three times.

If she can provide concrete evidence that the photograph is not a fake - when Prince Andrew told Maitlis "I can absolutely categorically tell you it never happened" - that really is the end for him.

Monarchists may feel Prince Andrew has paid a high price for being naive.

It is murky stuff, and it may yet get murkier.

There is pressure on Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to act. Don't rule out the Prince being taken in for questioning a lot rougher than Maitlis's.

Lawyers representing Epstein accusers in the US are already calling on him to tell the FBI what he knows.

The damage caused by his foolish interview is incalculable.

The Duke's priority now must be to protect the Queen, as she has protected him.

With Prince Charles away in New Zealand and Prince Philip increasingly frail and unable to offer her support, the scandal is said to be taking its toll on the 93-year-old monarch. She doesn't deserve it.

An announcement that Prince Andrew is withdrawing from royal duties until the Epstein case is resolved would help the monarchy gain some control over the narrative.

If the Duke refused the Sovereign Grant (which replaced the Civil List), it would show humility: the public doesn't want to fund the friend of a paedophile.

You could say it is Prince Andrew's bad luck that he finds himself in the first generation of royal males who may be held to account for their treatment of the girls below stairs.

In her legal deposition to a US court, Virginia Roberts-Giuffre recalled that day in London, 18 years ago, when she was told by Ghislaine: "Today, you are going to meet a prince."

What is alleged to have followed was the opposite of a fairy tale.

"Ghislaine asked Andrew how old he thought I was, and he guessed 17, and they all laughed. Ghislaine made a joke that I was getting too old for Jeffrey. She said: 'He'll soon have to trade her in.' It was widely known that he liked young girls."

I believe her. How about you?