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GUY ADAMS asks why Prince Michael of Kent is playing Russian roulette with Royal Family reputation? 

Many moons ago, Princess Michael of Kent was hired as celebrity ribbon-cutter at a new branch of the Happy Eater fast-food chain situated in a layby off the A3 just south of Guildford.

Brandishing a pair of oversize scissors, she joked: ‘I’d go anywhere for a hot meal!’

It was a dig at critics, who’d been moaning that the gig was unbecoming of a British royal. But the light-hearted remark also laid bare a more serious truth: that despite their blue-blooded pedigree, the Princess and her husband, Prince Michael, had grown accustomed to being perennially short of cash.

The Prince and Princess Michael of Kent photographed at Nether Lypiatt Manor, their unconventional pursuit of money continues to make headlines

Prince Michael and Putin were joint patrons of an event at Kensington Palace promoting sambo, an obscure Russian martial art (pictured, Prince Michael and Putin in London in 2003)

Today, more than three decades after that famous incident, their unconventional pursuit of money continues to make headlines.

What’s more, the places the couple are now willing to go in exchange for a proverbial ‘hot meal’ include not just tacky roadside restaurants, but also the morally-bankrupt corridors of power in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

That’s how things seem, at least, from video clips that emerged yesterday showing Asian businessmen being told that the Prince could secretly introduce them to senior figures in the hostile regime.

For a fee of £50,000, the Queen’s 78-year-old first cousin (whose grandfather was George V) was filmed telling representatives of a Korean gold firm called House Of Haedong that he’d be prepared to leverage connections in Moscow to ‘bring some benefit’ to its efforts to expand into Russia.

The transaction, it was claimed, would ensure that Prince Michael made ‘confidential’ representations to the President’s inner circle during a five-day trip to the country, where he’s treated with great reverence thanks to his uncanny resemblance to Nicholas II, the last tsar, who was a cousin of his grandparents.

If they wanted to throw even more cash at the venture, then a further $200,000 (£143,000) would buy the royal’s endorsement via a corporate speech, filmed against the backdrop of his home at Kensington Palace.

It would be money well spent, argued Michael’s business partner Simon Isaacs, the Marquess of Reading, because the Prince would then be able to pull strings thanks to his role as ‘Her Majesty’s unofficial ambassador to Russia’.

‘If he [the Prince] is with Putin and five or six other Putin ministers, Putin will be able to say: “Right, well, that’s the guy who you need to work with,” ’ says the Marquess.

‘And that’s the key, really . . . as long as you get authority from the top, you can get virtually anything done in Russia.’

Prince Michael’s Private Secretary Camilla Rogers, meanwhile, told the House Of Haedong executives that the Prince would be able to introduce them to senior figures within the Russian government.

‘We can certainly help in that sense,’ she said. ‘Even if he doesn’t have direct contact to the person that you want, there is a way in. There is always a way in.’

Sadly, for both Prince Michael’s bank balance and his reputation, this lobbying extravaganza was not to be.

For House Of Haedong turned out to be a fake business. Its creators were a team of undercover reporters from the Channel 4 programme Dispatches and the Sunday Times.

Their mission, as illustrated by the title of tonight’s documentary, Royals For Hire, was to investigate persistent rumours that members of the Royal Family have been quietly exploiting their status in order to pursue lucrative business opportunities in the rogue state.

If they wanted to throw even more cash at the venture, then a further $200,000 (£143,000) would buy the royal’s endorsement via a corporate speech, filmed against the backdrop of his home at Kensington Palace

This is the moment the Queen's cousin Prince Michael of Kent (right) received an honorary professorship from one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's oldest and most trusted cronies 

Such work at best shows appalling judgment and is at worst unpatriotic: Putin’s Russia is not only considered a security threat, but is also where senior regime figures are supposedly the subject of economic sanctions. That they appear to have hit the jackpot via Prince Michael — when three other royals refused to do business with House Of Haedong, and a fourth didn’t even respond to the firm’s approach — is, therefore, a matter of significant embarrassment not just for the Kents, but also the Queen.

Although he is not a working royal and does not receive income from the Sovereign Grant — a status that effectively forces him to earn a crust as a ‘business consultant’ — Prince Michael does still carry out regular engagements on behalf of Her Majesty.

His personal website suggests that in a typical year he makes 100 official appearances ‘for charities and other non-profit organisations’, plus ‘a further 245 a year for Royal Family, diplomatic, military or Masonic functions’.

In the months before the Covid lockdown, he appeared in the Court Circular representing the Crown at events to celebrate Remembrance Day, along with Trooping the Colour, a Royal Garden Party and a State banquet attended by (then) U.S. President Donald Trump.

Prince Michael is, in other words, at least a peripheral member of the Firm who (while pursuing a career) simultaneously retains significant perks and privileges, such as occasional police protection and the right to sometimes stay at British embassies while abroad, including on trips to Russia.

What’s more, unlike Prince Harry, who was forced to surrender royal and military patronages before he was allowed to pursue a commercial career, he has been allowed to keep several honorific roles.

Michael is, for example, patron of dozens of charities and trade bodies, from Battersea Dogs Home to the Institute Of The Motor Industry.

He also boasts five honorary military positions, including as Senior Colonel of the Kings Royal Hussars, whose troops have (rather ironically) spent the past two years in Estonia, where they are supposed to be NATO’s first line of defence against a potential Russian invasion of Europe.

To hold such posts while seeking lobbying work as what Lord Reading described as a ‘friend of Russia’ is at best awkward, and at worst a catastrophic error of judgment. Some might argue that it also undermines Britain’s national interest, and, therefore, places the Royal Family in a deeply awkward position.

‘The Palace’s position on this is that Prince Michael isn’t a working royal, so they don’t speak for him, and vice versa, but I don’t think that is really good enough,’ said a royal insider yesterday.

‘It’s similar to what they were saying last year when [Princess Anne’s son] Peter Phillips agreed to star in a Chinese milk advert.

‘The problem, for the Palace, is that this is way more sinister because of the sort of people he was dealing with, and the things he seemed prepared to do and say. For example, for his business partner to claim that he’s the Queen’s “unofficial ambassador” to Moscow is firstly completely untrue, and secondly a massive insult to the real British ambassador.’

Adding to the ugly whiff is the fact that Prince Michael and his associates appear to have conceded, during negotiations with the fake company, to keep his lobbying work in Russia under wraps on the basis that it would be considered unethical.

‘This is kind of slightly discreet,’ Lord Reading told the undercover reporters at one point during negotiations. ‘We’re talking relatively discreetly here because we wouldn’t want the world to know that he is seeing Putin purely for business reasons.’

Little wonder Prince Michael’s PR man Simon Astaire spent yesterday arguing that he’d done nothing wrong, saying in a statement that he barely knows President Putin (‘They last met in 2003 and he has had no contact with him or his office since then’) and arguing that he’s ‘proud of all the work he has done for UK- Russia trade’.

Mr Astaire appeared to blame at least some of the kerfuffle on the Prince’s business partner Lord Reading for allegedly exaggerating the degree to which the royal was prepared to lobby Russians on behalf of a commercial client. ‘Lord Reading is a good friend, who made suggestions which Prince Michael would not have wanted, or been able, to fulfil.’

The Marquess seemed to accept responsibility for some wrongdoing, stating that during conversations with the undercover reporters: ‘I made a mistake and over-promised and for that, I am truly regretful. I wasn’t at my peak as I was recovering from a kidney transplant.’

Be that as it may, the affair will inevitably see Prince Michael’s links to Russia placed under the spotlight, a process that both he and Buckingham Palace may end up finding very uncomfortable.

A fluent Russian speaker, with ties to the corrupt but resource-rich country going back several decades, he lists a dozen Russian patronages on his personal website, including roles with the Russian National Orchestra, Moscow Academy Of Industry And Finance, and the Russo-British Chamber Of Commerce.

His personal company, Cantium Services, through which he funnels consultancy work for business clients in Russia and elsewhere, has recorded income of more than £2.2 million in the past five years, largely from fees.

However most of that money was paid out via salaries, meaning it operated at a small loss and avoided having to pay corporation tax.

Last year, with the pandemic in full swing, and unable to travel to Russia, he took part in the RussiaTalk investment forum, appearing in a video conference alongside both the Russian Ambassador to Britain, Andrei Kelin, and the British Ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert. In 2019, he was praised for ‘melting that ice of mistrust’ between Russia and Britain on a visit to Yekaterinburg.

In the aftermath of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, at a time when there was a ban on UK ministerial visits to Russia, he slipped into Moscow unpublicised to open Brookes Moscow School, a £25 million international academy favoured by elite Russian parents.

A year earlier, he was filmed receiving an honorary Professorship from St Petersburg Mining University from Professor Vladimir Litvinenko, a close friend of Mr Putin who was his campaign manager in 2000 and 2004 when he stood for the presidency and, like most of his inner circle, has since become a billionaire.

Prince Michael has also been photographed with one of Russia’s wealthiest women, Yelena Baturina, wife of the former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

And in 2012 Russian officials enlisted Michael to open the London office of the state agency Rossotrudnichestvo, which was promoting a pro-Putin diplomatic and cultural agenda in scores of countries around the world.

Back in 2009, he became one of an elite handful of Britons to receive the Order of Friendship, one of the Kremlin’s highest honours, for work on Anglo-Russian relations. The gong (previously given to Cold War double-agent George Blake, who betrayed 400 western spies to the KGB) was presented by then president Dmitry Medvedev.

A former Russian diplomat said yesterday that the Prince is known affectionately as ‘Kentski’ in Moscow, ‘has significant connections among influential business people, and he is respected by major political figures. It can be hard to know where the line is between his royal duties and his personal commercial activities’.

There is little doubt that some of his Russian connections have also been spectacularly lucrative.

For example, in 2013, Prince Michael and Putin were joint patrons of an event at Kensington Palace promoting sambo, an obscure Russian martial art.

For £3,000 a head — though it’s unclear who exactly profited from this event — guests were told that there would be ‘opportunities for building relations with senior Russian political and business leaders, including personally meeting President Vladimir Putin’.

Meanwhile, in 2012, it emerged that exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky had in recent years given him a ‘stipend’ of some £320,000 paid via 56 separate transactions from offshore accounts.

At the time, Prince and Princess Michael, who is now 76, were coming to terms with a catastrophic change in their circumstances.

Although they had for years been short of loot — earning the nickname ‘Rent a Kents’ and on one occasion in the 1990s forcing the Prince to advertise tacky gifts on American television under the rubric ‘House Of Windsor’ — the couple were also allowed to inhabit a five-bedroom apartment in Kensington Palace for the peppercorn rent of £69 a week, meaning they had comparatively few overheads.

Once the arrangement became public, in 2002, the royals were forced to begin charging them a ‘commercial rent’. However, the Queen initially agreed to cover the cost privately in order to allow them to get their finances in order by selling Nether Lypiatt, their manor house in Gloucestershire.

The property took several years to offload, and at one point the Princess was secretly filmed by Mazher Mahmood, an undercover reporter known as the ‘Fake Sheikh’, who posed as a wealthy Arab buyer. He recorded her making a number of indiscreet remarks, calling Princess Diana ‘nasty’ and saying Prince Charles was ‘jealous’ of his ex-wife’s popularity.

After it had gone (the house went to Labour peer Lord Drayson for £5.75million, while its contents raised around £2 million at auction), in 2010 they began paying rent.

The rate, initially, was some £10,000 a month, though that is likely to have increased. They must also run a small private office, as well as footing bills for their somewhat extravagant lifestyle: the Princess has a weakness for couture, and is said to have one of the most extensive wardrobes of any royal, while his extravagance is cars.

Perhaps inevitably, the couple soon complained of feeling the pinch. ‘I am in very austere economic times, too, thank you very much,’ Princess Michael told an interviewer at the time.

‘We’ve cut back dramatically. I mean, we never go out to dinner unless we go to somebody’s house. We never go to restaurants. That’s too extravagant. We invite people here. I cook.’

The solution, it now seems, was to pursue lucrative business opportunities in Russia.

Sadly, that put ‘Kentski’ uncomfortably close to the Kremlin. Or to put things another way, this British royal has been well and truly tsar-struck.

Additional reporting: Rebecca English, Royal Editor, and Will Stewart in Moscow.

Money talks: Prince Michael in London with Russian President Vladimir Putin (both circled) in 2003; his former manor home Nether Lypiatt; and with his wife, Princess Michael of Kent

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