Belfast Telegraph

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Published 13/03/2011

I once went to a party given by someone I didn't really know for no better reason than this: Martine McCutcheon was going to be there. Now famous for selling yoghurt, Miss McCutcheon had just finished playing Tiffany on EastEnders and was heading for star roles in an ill-fated My Fair Lady and Richard Curtis's Love Actually. I couldn't wait.

Fantasies of bonding with this glamorous figure over the canapes filled my mind all week. Of course, I went, and glimpsed her without exchanging a word. I talked to acquaintances about what they were up to, what I was up to and all of that. But for the next month I bored everyone with this incredible fact: I went to a party with Martine McCutcheon at it.

Plenty of people have considered that this frankly vulgar motive in human behaviour ought to be harnessed for public gain. Some celebrities, for instance, hire themselves out to nightclubs and parties for a fee, so that the gawping public can say that they have been in the same room as the starlet of the moment.

This, surely, is the explanation for Prince Andrew. He acts as a 'trade envoy' for the UK, travelling abroad to drum up business. In social events across the world, he shakes hands with local businessmen, he makes speeches commending UK exports, he smiles and exchanges manly jokes.

Faintly disreputable stories about the Duke of York have been circulating for years. One diplomat who had to deal with him on an official visit complained about "a number of schoolboy jokes by the Prince. He even suggested that my wife had 'touched him up' under the table".

There have, too, been suggestions over the years that personal gain played a part in some of these overseas trips. Questions have been raised over the sale of his Ascot house in 2007 to the son-in-law of the President of Kazakhstan for £3m more than the asking price.

That same diplomat claimed that "on a visit to the Gulf in 2005, Prince Andrew was hawking this house around during meetings with Gulf royals". Indeed, his private secretary - a public official, after all - "had sounded people out about it in advance on a recent visit".

On the whole, we have been putting up with this, and with the extraordinary style in which Prince Andrew carries out his role, for one reason - he is the second son of the Queen, and fourth in line to the throne. We don't see anything so very strange in the idea that someone in this role should travel around by private jet with valets and equerries and private secretaries and bodyguards - that, famously, his valet brings his own ironing board with him everywhere he goes, because he has been touched, fairly remotely, by the Divine Right of Kings.

The WikiLeaks exposure of diplomatic cables included an interesting one from the US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, in which she described a brunch there attended by the Duke. He complained about anti-corruption investigators scuttling arms deals, about journalists seeking transparency, about the innate honesty of the French and, weirdly, about American geography teachers - "The Americans don't understand geography. Never have. In the UK, we have the best geography teachers in the world!"

Since then, attention has been paid to a number of the Duke's business contacts. They are not all that one might hope. The son-in-law of the deposed Tunisian dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was invited by the Duke to lunch at Buckingham Palace a mere three months before the regime was toppled.

It is true that royalty sometimes has to entertain some unappealing people - even the Queen entertained Ceausescu, after all. But then another dubious friend appeared - an American billionaire called Jeffrey Epstein, who has served a prison sentence for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution.

The Duke was photographed with his arm round one of Epstein's teenage girls. Members of the Government have quickly been at pains to point out that the Duke is, in his role, nothing more than "a volunteer" - other politicians have used the words "an embarrassment".

The fact that matters have got this far before politicians are prepared to say that enough is enough is truly startling.

What a Duke of York can offer trade missions is not informed views, or gracious behaviour, but just one thing - a high RSVP response. The punters will turn up to a garden party with an HRH when a mere KCMG can't work his magic.

Perhaps, too, those Kyrgyzstan-based businessmen considered that they had got their money's worth with those golf-club opinions, particularly since they shocked an impressionable US ambassador.

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