News from Nowhere: Prince of Darkness
History will eventually remember how the Prime Minister and the Prince of a former empire heralded the beginnings of their ends in the same week.
Earlier this month, the head honchos at Buckingham Palace published their plans for a glittering array of celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee this year. These are set to include street parties, a pop concert, a birthday parade, a historical pageant, a thanksgiving service, a tree-planting scheme, and a national competition to create a commemorative pudding. Frankly, one might imagine that, faced with this mundane menu of bland festive fare, the thing the Queen would be most looking forward to this year could well be the fifth and final season of Netflix’s The Crown. She’s no doubt keen to find out how the story pans out.
Assuming all goes to plan, she will become the first British monarch ever to have reached this platinum milestone. The seventieth anniversary of her accession to the throne will take place in early February, but the festivities will climax in a long weekend in early June, when her loyal subjects (and the rest of the country) will enjoy two additional days of national holiday, exactly sixty-nine years after her coronation itself.
Though she hasn’t exactly been consigned to a protective cocoon, Her Majesty’s public engagements have been significantly reduced since the emergence of Covid in 2020 and then death of her ninety-nine-year-old husband last year. She will herself pass her ninety-sixth birthday in April, all things being well. Several media commentators have pointed out that there seems a sense in which her courtiers are making an extra special effort to keep her alive and well through the course of her anniversary celebrations, as though their responsibility for ensuring her continuing survival would not otherwise have featured quite so highly on their list of professional priorities.
Last year saw not only the death of Prince Philip, but also the escalation of the very public estrangement of her grandson Prince Harry from the rest of the royal family. Last March, Harry had joined his wife Meghan in suggesting to Oprah Winfrey that his closest relatives had been rather unpleasant to them both and could sometimes even be a bit racist. This clearly premeditated outburst has caused some friction, to say the least.
Yet neither of these events was the worst thing to hit the British monarchy in 2021. In fact, the Oprah incident was not even the TV interview which has caused the most harm to the reputation of the Windsor dynasty in recent years.
In 1994, the heir to the throne Prince Charles had famously revealed explosive details about his private life in a controversial television interview. The following year, his wife Princess Diana had retaliated by exposing secrets of further infidelities and mental illness which rocked the monarchy to its core. Indeed, the repercussions of that interview have continued reverberate, with the BBC only last year finding itself obliged to apologize for the underhand methods by which its journalist had secured that exclusive conversation with the self-styled queen of her people’s hearts.
These senior royals should perhaps have learned by now that they rarely come out well from such broadcast interviews. In fact, the fallout of the most extraordinary of these attempts to court public approval – an unprecedentedly ill-advised interview which the Queen’s second son gave to the BBC’s Emily Maitlis in November 2019 – continues to resonate internationally through the media, the courts and the popular imagination.
The interview had been arranged in order to give Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and ninth in line to the throne, the opportunity to address allegations and insinuations concerning the nature and extent of his relationship with the American billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who had died in prison just a few months earlier.
During his interview with Maitlis, the prince had explained that he had visited Epstein in his Manhattan home in 2010 (following Epstein’s first criminal conviction) because it had been ‘a convenient place to stay’. He was apparently unaware that New York offers a range of luxury hotels whose services are available for the comfort and convenience of European royals, and indeed for any other wealthy businesspeople looking for a good time.
He also responded to accusations which had originally been filed in a Florida court five years earlier that he had, in 2001, engaged in sexual activities with an underaged girl groomed by his friend Epstein. He argued that these claims could not possibly be true because the plaintiff had observed in her testimony that he had been sweating heavily when they had danced together in a London nightclub, despite the fact that he was (he said) medically incapable of sweating.
He also claimed to have been home at the time, after having attended a children’s birthday party at a provincial branch of a chain of popular pizza restaurants earlier that evening. It had not previously been generally known that members of the upper echelons of Britain’s aristocracy tended to frequent such reasonably priced family eateries. However, now that this information has come out, one should of course always remember to keep an eye out for the Duke of Cambridge whenever one’s enjoying a cheeky plate of spicy chicken down at one’s local Nando’s: ‘Good evening, Your Royal Highness. How do you like the peri-peri sauce tonight?’
The prince’s peculiar assertions were met with incredulity and ridicule in the UK press. The whole show was, in short, what might be described as something of a car crash, the worst the family had experienced since 1997.
This situation has recently, however, grown far, far worse. At the end of last year, a US federal court found Epstein’s accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell guilty of the trafficking of minors for sexual purposes. In his 2019 interview, Andrew had insisted that he had only got to know Epstein in the first place through his own long-standing friendship with Maxwell. Those words are now returning to haunt him.
Moreover, the interview is now being used as evidence in ongoing legal action being pursued against the prince by Virginia Guiffre, the woman who claims to have had sex with Andrew on several occasions in 2001, before she had reached the age of consent. In response to a request from her lawyers prompted by the interview, his legal team announced at the end of December that they were not able to provide documentary evidence of his purported inability to sweat, a contention that had already been questioned by various medical experts. They have also been unable to name any witnesses willing to corroborate his pizza restaurant alibi.
Earlier this month, an American court ordered the publication of an agreement made in 2009 between Jeffrey Epstein and Ms. Guiffre. Prince Andrew’s lawyers had argued that this settlement, whereby Virginia Guiffre was paid half a million dollars in return for her agreeing to take no further legal action against Epstein or any other ‘potential defendant’ related to her case, meant that she could not continue to pursue her civil suit against the prince. It appeared that his legal team were therefore proposing that the Queen of England’s second son could reasonably be thought to represent the ‘potential defendant’ anticipated by Epstein’s paperwork. Although they had sought to deploy this document in an attempt to exempt their client from this process of litigation, they had unsuccessfully petitioned the court that its contents should remain sealed from public scrutiny. The implications of this agreement might not incriminate Prince Andrew, but they could evidently embarrass him.
As these legal wranglings rumbled on, one point became increasingly clear: that the prince and his attorneys seemed so determined to avoid him being forced to appear in an American court, to defend himself against these allegations, that they were willing to take advantage of a loophole included in a document concocted by his close associate, a convicted paedophile, to pay off one of his victims in a bid to protect both himself and his own friends from further prosecutions. The optics on this did not, of course, look good. This unscrupulous legalistic squirming hardly seemed consistent with the principles of honour and integrity with which the British royal family has for centuries endeavoured to align itself. In fact, they recalled the various undignified and specious tactics employed by his legal team last summer to avoid having legal papers relating to the case served upon their client. The wayward prince was still doing remarkably little to ensure that his mother would enjoy a brilliantly untainted anniversary.
The histories of second sons (or indeed daughters) of royal families – children ostensibly destined by accidents of birth to miss out on their elder siblings’ glorious fortunes – can be notoriously problematic. The insecurities of Queen Elizabeth’s own sister Margaret were often manifested in her issues with married men and alcohol. Their father himself had ascended to the throne with extreme unwillingness after his disreputable brother – a man known to sympathize with the Third Reich – had been forced to abdicate. Her grandson Harry has also repeatedly provoked unhelpful press coverage, including the famous photos of when he dressed as a Nazi at a fancy dress party, and of when he undressed completely on a trip to Las Vegas. Rather further back in the family tree, her medieval ancestor John Lackland (also known as ‘Bad King John’) had caused some serious discontent when he had taken the crown following the death of his beloved brother Richard the Lionheart, provoking two years of civil war.
Yet it now seems likely that Prince Andrew will prove to be the second son who has done the most severe and lasting damage to any royal dynasty since Prince Paris told his father King Priam that he was planning to bring his new girlfriend Helen home to visit their palace in Troy, and declared that the fact that she was already married into Greek royalty was, he was confident, nothing they really needed to worry about.
On 12 January, a New York judge ruled against the British prince’s motion that Virginia Guiffre’s case be dismissed on the grounds that an agreement she had signed thirteen years ago to accept a compensation payment from her abuser conferred immunity upon the royal defendant.
The judgement noted that the prince’s legal team had argued that Andrew might be considered to be invoked as that ‘potential defendant’ cited in the 2009 agreement, on the grounds that Ms. Guiffre had made a reference to ‘royalty’ in her original complaint. However, it concluded that the agreement could not be said to refer unambiguously to Prince Andrew. Its intended interpretation was therefore not sufficiently explicit to exempt him from legal action.
It might nevertheless be observed that this wording and its context seemed clear enough to deepen public suspicions surrounding the Duke of York. Indeed, there were doubtless those who thought that this slippery clause (whose existence his lawyers had hyped since last autumn as absolving their client of ‘any and all liability’) had the prince’s prints all over it.
The judge also specifically rejected the argument that the New York State Legislature had acted unconstitutionally when it had granted temporary permission for the consideration of ‘child abuse claims that otherwise would have been too late’, thus opening the door for Virginia Guiffre’s case. Furthermore, he refuted the claim that the allegations against the prince were too vague to be properly addressed. On the contrary, the judge remarked that these alluded to ‘discrete incidents of sexual abuse in particular circumstances at three identifiable locations’ and directly identified to whom they attributed that abuse.
We may note that the arguments of the prince’s legal team did not reflect at all well upon their client. The case will therefore carry on, and will no doubt continue to inflict incalculable harm upon his own reputation, and upon that of the family on whose esteemed character the stature of a nation has long been seen to rest, and towards whom the international spotlight will turn with particular intensity in this special jubilee year.
In the immediate wake of the January judgement, Andrew was stripped by his mother of his military titles and his royal honorific. An intimate associate of convicted sex offenders, a friend to billionaires, and once a major player in the international arms trade, the prince was this month also reported to have settled a £6.6 million debt on the purchase of an £18 million Swiss chalet. This transaction meant that he would be able to sell the property, in order to fund his mounting legal costs, costs that now look set to continue to rise.
Other stories and scandals will of course eventually come to displace this controversy in the fickle memory that underpins the UK media’s febrile hive mind. But this might take quite a while. On the very same day as that New York judgement, the British Prime Minister faced renewed calls for his resignation, after he was forced to admit in parliament to having breached his own government’s Covid-19 restrictions when he had attended a drinks party (one of at least a dozen apparently organized by his members of administration) during a period of national lockdown. Yet even that was not enough to entirely distract news audiences from the sour taste left by the unwholesome reports which had that day once more indicted the dissolute prince.
So, the news on Wednesday 12 January had been filled with reports of how their partying lifestyles had at last caught up with the nation’s most prominent pair of privileged and arrogant philanderers. After months of speculation, excuses and denials relating to his involvement in various illicit social gatherings, Britain’s premier had finally done what the Daily Mail’s front page had that morning demanded he must do. He had confessed and apologized. It was in truth more than the Queen’s second son had done.
The Labour Party immediately and vociferously called upon the Prime Minister to resign. However, they obviously did not want him to do so. Although they would never admit it, they had in recent months come to adore the increasingly accident-prone Boris Johnson, and desperately wanted him to stay in his job for as long as possible – preferably until the next general election.
Mr. Johnson had always been considered a major electoral asset. That remained the case. It was just that he was now thought to be a key asset for the Opposition rather than for the Conservatives. He had come to represent, for Labour, an invaluable and virtually incontrovertible reminder of the incompetence and dishonesty of the administration that he leads. He suddenly looked set to tarnish all that he touched.
Two of the more controversial parties at the Prime Minister’s London office had taken place in April 2021, on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. It was reported that, while the Duke of Edinburgh had lain at rest in the chapel at Windsor Castle, Downing Street staff had been dispatched to a local supermarket with instructions to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine to fuel their festivities. Some reports suggested that this was a regular occurrence. The following day, the Queen of England had sat masked and alone in that Windsor church, obedient to her government’s social distancing rules, as she bade farewell to her husband of more than seventy-three years. Figures at the heart of that government had, the previous evening, flouted those very same rules. On 14 January, Downing Street issued an unprecedented apology to Buckingham Palace. This was another embarrassment at this inauspicious start to Her Majesty’s jubilee year.
The same day, the former head of the government’s Covid-19 taskforce had to apologise when it emerged that she had also hosted a party during lockdown. At this point, the crisis-ridden Johnson administration appeared to have hit an all-time low. The situation was looking increasingly impossible to spin. It seemed that the optics and the outrage could hardly have got any worse, even if it had emerged that Mr. Johnson had been photographed during one of those boozy festivities in his garden at Downing Street while caught in a romantic embrace with Novak Djokovic, and wearing a ‘Patient Zero’ T-shirt as he sipped and spat at fellow party-goers the virulent blood of a grievously infected Wuhan bat.
On 15 January, The Times ran with the warning that the Prime Minister was drinking in the last chance saloon, and the Express newspaper’s top headline declared that the Queen deserved ‘better than this’. Nonetheless, The Sun’s front page supposed that Mr. Johnson’s feeble show of contrition had ramped up the pressure on Prince Andrew to issue a similarly public apology to his mother. The following day, the Sunday Times suggested that Johnson was preparing to cast the blame onto his staff in a bid to ‘save his own skin’. However, The Observer cautioned that his party’s MPs were saying that they would have no choice but to oust him if he continued to dodge taking responsibility for his actions.
Boris Johnson had said sorry, but his apologies had seemed half-hearted and conditional. There weren’t any parties, he didn’t know about these parties, they were someone else’s parties, he thought they were work events. By contrast, his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings had now appeared on the scene to insist that he had informed his boss that such parties were prohibited, and that Johnson ‘knew he was at a drinks party because he was told it was a drinks party and it was actually drinks party’. Mr. Johnson responded that nobody had warned him ‘that it was against the rules’ and has stressed that he ‘would have remembered that’. This appeared to leave his electorate with three possibilities: that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had been lying to them; or that he has a debilitatingly poor memory; or that he did not understand his own government’s emergency regulations. That was pretty much it: he had talked himself into a corner. He was dishonest, absent-minded, or dumb. Or possibly all three.
By Wednesday 19 May, a week after his initial admission to parliament, many of his backbenchers were in open revolt, as he faced what the Daily Telegraph had that morning described as a ‘plot from rebel MPs’ – while others were saying they would await the imminent outcome of an internal inquiry into ‘Party-gate’ before confirming their judgment on their leader’s fate. That morning, one of his MPs – who had already demanded the Prime Minister’s departure – quit the Conservative Party and joined the Opposition. In parliament that afternoon, a senior Tory and former Cabinet minister addressed Mr. Johnson directly: ‘In the name of God, go!’
Those words were echoed the following morning on the front pages of the Guardian, Mirror and Metro newspapers. However, the right-wing Mail and Express turned that sentiment around in a bid to implore those Tory discontents in God’s name to grow up and support their embattled boss. This was perhaps inevitable: Johnson had after all just done what both those papers had been calling upon him to do for weeks. In a calculatedly populist move, he had just scrapped all his government’s Covid-19 safety restrictions. With daily death tolls still numbering in the hundreds, some might consider this was a desperately cynical tactic. But what did this premier care? He had already very visibly demonstrated his personal disdain and disregard for such rules.
Yet, by this point, it seemed difficult to deny that the Tories’ erstwhile golden boy had become his own party’s black sheep, a blustering liability, a diabolical stain upon its character, a big fat blot on its copybook, the lingering odour of something once savoured but now gone bad, a once entertainingly roguish imp who had turned out to be the very devil himself. To put it bluntly, he suddenly seemed in PR terms the political equivalent of a paedophile prince. All at once, he appeared doomed, one way or another, to be brought down by party politics.
Both these stories will of course continue to play out over the coming days. Their broader impacts may well endure rather longer. The events of a chilly week in the middle of January may not in themselves have immediately spelled the end for the public lives of these two proud and powerful men, a prime minister and a prince. But history will eventually record whether they heralded the beginnings of their ends.