Jayne Dowle: A yar that could be making of Prince Andrew

COULD this be the year that Air Miles Andy finally earns his keep? Prince Andrew, regarded for most of his 53 years as nothing much more useful than a spare heir, is carving himself a new role as the most unlikely of ambassadors.

Since that messy business over his friendships with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, the Duke of York is no longer jetting off abroad in some spurious capacity as Britain’s “trade envoy”.

Instead, he is concentrating his efforts much closer to home. He has come out in support of apprenticeships for young people, and is encouraging students to regard technical training as a worthwhile alternative to a course of academic study.

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It seems a most unlikely pairing; the playboy Prince and youngsters studying for qualifications in catering or bricklaying. Actually, it represents a small stroke of genius.

Here is a man who left school and went straight into the Navy to train as a pilot. He left the philosophising to his elder brother and attempted to carve out a reputation for himself as “Action Man Andy”, taking part in the Falklands conflict and roistering his way around the world, attracting controversy with his freeloading ways.

His dalliances with glamorous women became the stuff of saloon bar legend. And the demise of his marriage to Sarah Ferguson revealed rather more than anyone needed to know about the intimate habits of the upper classes. Since leaving the Navy he has never really done a job of work the rest of us would recognise. Still, whatever you say about Prince Andrew, he has certainly seen life.

Of course, he has to accept that many of the teenagers he seeks to inspire won’t have a clue who he is. To this generation, one Royal looks pretty much like another. Indeed, you might argue that any one of his brothers, cousins or uncles could have turned up to the new University Technical College in Reading, as he did the other day, and cut the ribbon. Therefore, can such a role ever be anything more than that of a token figurehead?

Well, this depends entirely on what Andrew himself puts into it. Here is a chance for him to prove he has a point. If he blows it, he has no one to blame but himself. Surely at his age, he should settle down and concentrate. He needs to draw a line under the past, build on his strengths and find something practical to do for the next 20 to 30 years.

In the full glare of the media spotlight, however, this is easier said than done. His task then is doubly hard. And he must be careful to be seen to be earning his authority, rather than riding on the back of the achievements of young people. That would do far more damage to his reputation than any amount of questionable business deals in far-off lands.

I have it on good authority that the Prince is actually a very down-to-earth bloke. I’ve got a friend who served with him in the Navy and is now active in the sea cadets. He won’t have a word said against him. He says he’s brilliant with new recruits and will talk to anyone, regardless of their background.

And to be fair, the Prince has already inspired influential figures such as the inventor Trevor Baylis, who agrees that vocational training is a win-win situation for everyone. Baylis, a long-standing champion of British industry and innovation, says that UTCs are a good idea because they focus on practical skills, knocking in nails and so on.

The Prince needs this kind of support. It gives credence to his position, because despite his colourful life, he can hardly claim to have worked at the sharp end of industry. However, he also needs to connect with the kids. He has recently joined Twitter and is tweeting in a personal capacity as @TheDukeOfYork. Another interesting rebranding move, but the world in which he seeks to make the strongest impression is anything but virtual. He must do more than stand around asking polite questions and smiling for the cameras. In other words, he’s got to get his hands dirty.

He could take inspiration from his late sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales, and turn up unannounced to any of the institutions he is involved with. He doesn’t even need to tell the students who he is. And to be honest, it’s no bad thing that they might not actually recognise him.

These kind of apprenticeships give hope to those who know traditional university is not for them. There must be millions of mothers out there wondering what their sons (and daughters) will make of their lives. We can’t help but worry that they will never find a purpose and get a proper job.

In this respect, the Queen is no different from the rest of us. Over the years, her second son must have contributed to half the silver hairs on her head. Maybe this will be the year when he finally proves himself to her, and to us.