COMMENT:

They haven't quite ruined her summer, but it's been close. Day after day, news of exasperating royal behaviour has thudded on to the nation's breakfast tables to the despair of the Queen.

Prince Harry's staggeringly misjudged swipe at the Commonwealth and his assertion that it must acknowledge past wrongs over empire and race.

His wife Meghan's complaints about being "unprotected" by the royals while making sly digs at other family members.

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And then there is Prince Andrew, evoking the least public sympathy of all, as revelations about his friendships plumb fresh depths of tawdriness and embarrassment.

Every morning seems to bring a new piece of news about Andrew. Little of it brings good cheer. The shock over publication of a photograph of Andrew's friends Ghislaine Maxwell and the disgraced Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey posing on the coronation thrones during a private tour of the palace organised by the Duke of York, has ramped up the pressure.

Yesterday it even drew in the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, who said the prince should cooperate with the FBI over his relationship with Maxwell and the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Starmer, a former lawyer and one-time director of public prosecutions, was unequivocal.

"It doesn't matter who you are," he said. "You cooperate with the law enforcement authorities when they ask you to do so."

All this week at Buckingham Palace, while the family's principal figures have been continuing to lead the nation's response to the coronavirus, senior courtiers have been becoming more and more rattled by the distractions.

Prince Andrew's silence is deafening, writes Richard Kay. Photo / AP
Prince Andrew's silence is deafening, writes Richard Kay. Photo / AP

To the people whose lives are committed to the welfare of the monarchy, this has been one of the worst periods of public disapproval since the summer of 1992 when intrigue over Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage and the misbehaviour of the Duchess of York dominated the headlines.

It is not a crisis as that summer was. Not quite. Or as one senior official muttered with distinct discomfort yesterday: "Not yet."

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But there is a fear that this stream of uncomfortable news will reopen the debate about the future direction of the monarchy. The Andrew story in particular is seen as a gift for republicans to exploit – and to enjoy.

In many ways the saga of the prince and the paedophile would be seen as a farce were it not so sordid or so serious.

Just take the past few days. There has been the theatrical behaviour of the New York attorney, Audrey Strauss playing to the gallery with her grandiose pleas for Andrew to come forward; the shouty claims of defence lawyers pressing for the duke's head as a royal trophy; and even the involvement of a lobbying firm that specialises in taking on clients with an unsavoury reputation but declining to represent the Queen's son, implying that he was too toxic.

But over-arching all this sorry story is about Andrew and a question of truth. Is he guilty of evasion or is he a victim too of over-zealous prosecutors who, to Andrew's thinking anyway, have ignored the high profile and pressing claims of figures linked to Epstein in the US – namely President Trump and ex-president Bill Clinton – for the glory of a royal scalp?

Even so the duke has hardly helped himself. It is not just his appalling miscalculation in giving that interview to the BBC's Emily Maitlis and his explanations about Pizza Huts and not sweating, but rather about how he has responded to the most serious accusations.

Over the weekend the phrase "no recollection" was deployed again. He used it last to answer questions about that photograph of his arm around the bare midriff of 17-year-old Virginia Roberts, who claims they had sex three times – claims he denies. This time its use was over the throne-room photograph. It was taken in 2002 but who took it and how it came to be published 18 years later remains unknown.

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It doesn't take a constitutional genius to work out that picture – presumably snapped by one of his guests – and the image it conveys is not just an embarrassment to the Queen, it is also a betrayal of trust.

The brocade-upholstered thrones have a near sacred role at the palace. Always roped off from visitors, they are emblematic of the enduring power of monarchy and of the Queen's unimpeachable duty. "Treating them as props for a holiday snap is unspeakably bad manners," says a senior royal aide. "They are historical artefacts and allowing pictures to be taken shows an astonishing lack of judgment."

'Exasperating' royal behaviour has just about ruined the Queen's summer. Photo / Getty Images
'Exasperating' royal behaviour has just about ruined the Queen's summer. Photo / Getty Images

Andrew, however, has offered nothing in explanation for such a breach of protocol beyond the pat "no recollection" of the episode.

Even his defenders find that hard to reconcile. Maxwell and Spacey were not the only figures on that palace tour, so too was Bill Clinton. How many times has Prince Andrew escorted a former US president around his family home, they wonder?

Details of the events are still sketchy but insiders believe that the specially curated visit followed a dinner Andrew is thought to have hosted in the Chinese dining room.

"It is such a shock that this should happen with the Duke of York because he is normally a stickler for propriety," says the aide. "I've heard him tell people off for not eating properly at the table."

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The frenzy over the photograph underlined the closeness that existed between Andrew and Ghislaine Maxwell. Gloria Allred, the American lawyer representing many of Epstein's victims suggested that the prince might want to speak to the FBI before his friend Maxwell starts "naming names".

"If she is interested in a deal then she is going to have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in everything that she is asked and that would be Prince Andrew, what she saw him do, or observe or knew he did when they were together in reference to Jeffrey Epstein," the lawyer said.

"Prince Andrew, when he was in that house, saw young girls coming and going constantly when he was there. What did he think they were doing there, why were they there, did he speak to them was he involved with them at all or even with adult young women there?"

Andrew, it should be said, has strenuously denied any knowledge of criminal behaviour by Epstein.

Allred, who has been harrying Andrew for months, claims that more British women had come forward to make claims on Epstein's estate in recent days.

The Home Office is considering a request from US prosecutors to agree to help with their inquiries by facilitating an interview with Andrew under oath that would likely take place at his lawyers' office in London. However, the prince insists he is prepared to help voluntarily, and that such a request under the Mutual Legal Assistance treaty is unnecessary. His team says he is willing to cooperate.

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According to a friend, his inept handling of questions about the relationship with Epstein has helped pile pressure on him. "He had no intention to deceive but with some of his answers he ended up deceiving, which is different."

Another close figure says: "Andrew is naive and unworldly, a product of the royal bubble."

For now the "naive" prince remains holed up at Royal Lodge, his home in Windsor Great Park, isolated from the rest of the royal family and unable to visit the Queen at Windsor Castle.

Barely 8km separate mother and son, but with every new revelation the gulf gets wider and his silence louder and more unhelpful for him, the victims and the Queen.