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No.10 on the defensive as spin-doctor gaffes over Prince’s conduct

By Oliver Wright and Nigel Morris

David Cameron was forced to try to head off a rift with Buckingham Palace last night after his new spin-doctor appeared to question the Duke of York's future as a British trade envoy.

Downing Street sources — understood to be Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister's new director of communications — briefed the BBC that Prince Andrew's position might become “untenable” if further revelations about his links to the controversial American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein came to light.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, then threw fuel on the flames by saying that it was up to the Duke to judge whether he should stay in the role — and that “conversations” would be taking place with him on that subject.

Just a few hours later, however, Downing Street was in full retreat.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted that Mr Cameron had full confidence in the Duke and was “fully supportive” of him remaining in the post.

He also dismissed suggestions that Prince Andrew's role could be downgraded following the furore over his other business connections.

Prince Andrew has faced criticism for entertaining the son-in-law of the ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at Buckingham Palace. He has also maintained links with Mr Epstein, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008 for soliciting a minor for prostitution.

The Duke has been the UK's special representative for international trade and investment since 2001, travelling around the world and at home promoting Britain's business interests. There have been long-running complaints about the lavish nature of his official foreign trips.

His determination to ride out the controversy stands in stark contrast to the outpouring of contrition from his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson over a £15,000 subsidy she accepted from |Epstein last year.

“I personally, on behalf of myself, deeply regret that |Jeffrey Epstein became involved in any way with me,” she said yesterday.

“I abhor paedophilia and any sexual abuse of children and know that this was a gigantic error of judgment on my behalf.

“I am just so contrite I cannot say. Whenever I can I will repay the money and will have nothing ever to do with Jeffrey Epstein ever again.”

Last night Buckingham Palace refused to say whether it had called Downing Street to complain about Mr Oliver.

Prince Andrew himself appeared to draw a line under the criticisms as he busied himself with public engagements during the day.

But a source said the Duke recognised that being pictured with Mr Epstein last December was “unwise” and that “you shouldn't expect to see a photo of the Duke of York with Epstein again”.

Story so far

The political controversy over Prince Andrew’s dealings with convicted paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein started on Sunday night when a political member of the Downing Street Press office briefed reporters that there would not be “many tears shed” if the Duke was forced out of his role. After the story broke, the BBC contacted Mr Oliver for confirmation of Mr Cameron's position. |According to sources in the BBC, Mr Oliver — who left the Corporation only a fortnight ago —then attempted to dampen down the story.

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