Duke of York wins Cameron’s backing in role as trade envoy

Downing Street has offered robust support to the Duke of York amid calls for him to resign as UK trade envoy over his relationships with a series of controversial figures, including a convicted paedophile.

Business Secretary Vince Cable sparked speculation over Prince Andrew’s future when he said yesterday morning that “conversations” would be taking place with the Duke and it would be for him to judge whether he should stay on in the role.

But Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said that the Prime Minister had full confidence in Prince Andrew as trade envoy and was “fully supportive” of him staying on.

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The spokesman stressed that the Government was not reviewing the Duke’s voluntary position, which he has held since 2001.

Fresh doubts have been raised about Prince Andrew’s position in the wake of further news coverage over the weekend about his links with American billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008 for soliciting a minor for prostitution.

He has also faced criticism for entertaining the son-in-law of ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at Buckingham Palace.

News reports quoted an unnamed Government source as saying there would not be “many tears shed” if Prince Andrew quit, and the BBC said a Downing Street source had conceded one more serious story could make his role untenable.

But Mr Cameron’s spokesman declined to discuss the unattributed remarks, and insisted Prince Andrew enjoyed the Prime Minister’s full confidence.

“The Prime Minister thinks he is doing an important job and is making a major contribution and he is supportive of him in that role,” said the spokesman.

“We are not reviewing that role in any way. The Government’s position is very clear: that we support him in his role as trade envoy.

“He has made a very important contribution to UK trade through the role and continues to do so.”

Despite the mounting criticism, it was business as usual for Prince Andrew who spent the morning visiting a school in East London in his role as patron of the organisation Young Engineers.

He made no response to shouted questions from reporters about his future.

Later, the Duke visited the Canary Wharf offices of the Crossrail project, where he was confronted by dozens of waiting photographers and journalists.

He smiled as he stepped from his chauffeur-driven Bentley, which had a personalised number plate ending in D0Y – for Duke of York.

Mr Cable, who as President of the Board of Trade is responsible for trade promotion, stressed that it was not up to Ministers to drop the Duke.

“He is not a Government appointee. He is not somebody who is appointed and sacked,” he said.

Mr Cable added that he had no criticism of the way Prince Andrew had carried out his responsibilities as trade envoy and that business had found him “supportive and helpful”.

However, Labour former Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant said it was time for him to go.

“I think we should be dispensing with his services. I think the charge list now against him is so long that he is a bit of an embarrassment,” Mr Bryant said.

“I just can’t imagine the next time it is proposed that he goes to a foreign country what the ambassador would think.”

And senior Labour backbencher Mike Gapes, a member and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Duke’s position was “untenable”.

Mr Gapes said: “We need to be able to question our trade envoys about who they meet, what they do, what they do on behalf of our country.

“If he was a volunteer receiving an office with financial support, we could question Ministers about his role and he himself could be called before select committees of the House.

“Because of his royal position, we can’t do that. We can’t ask questions about the truth of the allegations that were in the newspapers and elsewhere. I think his position is untenable.”

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 private secretary, Alastair Watson, has said the Duke had known Mr Epstein since being introduced to him in the early 1990s. “The insinuations and innuendos that have been made in relation to the Duke are without foundation.”

Mr Watson also confirmed that, as part of his trade role, Andrew had met Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif in Libya twice in 2007.

Sir Andrew Cahn, who was chief executive of UK Trade and Investment until January this year, said: “I think that the Duke of York adds enormous value to Britain’s trade and investment effort.” He had access at the highest level in markets.

Comment: Page 10.