United Kingdom

Prince who's sparked at panic at the palace: The legal vice tightens for the Duke of York 

Once, it would have been an excuse for a party, one of those lavish, themed affairs so common at Royal Lodge, where even the staff were required to put on fancy dress.

But while the birth of a second grandchild is a moment of great personal happiness for the Duke and Duchess of York, the occasion will not see a repeat of the type of celebration where, to the amusement of their guests, the servants once dressed as school dinner ladies — at least not yet.

For the arrival of Princess Beatrice’s daughter — announced yesterday — comes amid a growing crisis over the sex abuse claims the new baby’s grandfather faces, and mounting concern inside Buckingham Palace over the tactics he is using to fight them.

According to weekend reports, there is increasing unease at how his highly-paid legal team have been apparently outwitted and outmanoeuvred by U.S. lawyers working for his accuser, Virginia Roberts.

While the birth of a second grandchild is a moment of great personal happiness for the Duke and Duchess of York, the occasion will not see a repeat of the type of celebration where, to the amusement of their guests, the servants once dressed as school dinner ladies — at least not yet

Courtiers also fear that the strategy of silence employed by Prince Andrew is causing reputational damage to the Royal Family. The anti-monarchy group Republic has gleefully launched a billboard campaign featuring pictures of Andrew smugly captioned ‘No one is above the law’, a reference to the lawsuit filed against the Prince in New York.

Yet while it may be easy to dismiss Republic’s glib opportunism, the sentiments of its message are much harder to ignore. The fact is, Andrew’s response to the legal action and his general evasiveness have added to the impression that the Duke has something to hide.

And, once again, at its heart is the issue of judgment. Lack of judgment has been a running theme in this whole sordid saga and it existed long before Ms Roberts began her civil case accusing the Duke of sexual assault in 2001 while allegedly being trafficked by the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

It was there that day in December 2010 that Andrew was photographed walking in New York’s Central Park with Epstein, not long after the billionaire financier’s release from jail where he had served 13 months for procuring a child for prostitution.

According to weekend reports, there is increasing unease at how his highly-paid legal team have been apparently outwitted and outmanoeuvred by U.S. lawyers working for his accuser, Virginia Roberts

And it was there when he followed the advice of his former private secretary Amanda Thirsk, who encouraged him to agree to the infamous Newsnight interview — only to lose her job in the calamitous fallout from the broadcast. While on that occasion his action might be more generously characterised as a misplaced sense of loyalty, there was no excusing what happened during the interview. Andrew’s judgement repeatedly went missing throughout the BBC broadcast when he failed to show a trace of empathy for Epstein’s victims or even regret over his friendship with the man.

It was in the aftermath of Newsnight, after he been forced to give up his public duties and with his image possibly tarnished beyond repair, that the prince turned to Gary Bloxsome, a UK criminal defence solicitor at Blackfords, a law firm with a stellar reputation.

The pair, who are both golfers, were introduced by a mutual friend and the lawyer’s initial brief was to head off an FBI inquiry into Andrew’s friendship with Epstein.But questions began to be asked over the decision not to fully engage with the legal process after U.S. prosecutors publicly humiliated the Prince when they announced on camera that he had provided ‘zero co-operation’.

This was to become a familiar approach as Mr Bloxsome insisted that Andrew adopt a policy of non-engagement. He used the same tactic in August when Ms Roberts sued him for undisclosed damages, accusing him of ‘rape in the first degree’.

Andrew’s judgement repeatedly went missing throughout the BBC broadcast when he failed to show a trace of empathy for Epstein’s victims or even regret over his friendship with the man

In her claim, Ms Roberts says she was forced to have sex with the Duke on three occasions when she was 17: in London at the home of Epstein’s alleged madam Ghislaine Maxwell, in New York at the American’s Manhattan townhouse and on his Caribbean island.

Andrew emphatically denies the allegations. But he has offered no formal legal response to the civil action. This strategy is widely regarded to have been a disastrous mistake for Andrew, who is under pressure to respond to the claim but faces a potentially embarrassing disclosure process if he does.

Last week’s unedifying spectacle of his lawyers arguing whether or not the Prince had been ‘properly’ served with the necessary legal papers added to the view that, in the face of a slick public relations campaign orchestrated by the Roberts team, the Bloxsome strategy has become threadbare.

The fact that U.S. lawyers were apparently briefed to represent the Prince in the civil action only two weeks ago added to the sense that Andrew’s team are responding to events rather than leading them. No wonder friends of the Duke have watched recent developments with alarm and are now asking if Andrew has become as entranced with Mr Bloxsome as he was once with Amanda Thirsk.

They believe the decision for the Duke to remain silent in the face of the allegations was a significant error. ‘He’s already been judged in the court of public opinion and the verdict has gone against him,’ says one friend. The Prince’s two visits to Balmoral this summer have also raised eyebrows. ‘Perception is everything in this,’ says one figure who used to advise Andrew.

Lack of judgment has been a running theme in this whole sordid saga and it existed long before Ms Roberts began her civil case accusing the Duke of sexual assault in 2001 while allegedly being trafficked by the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein

‘Whatever the explanation, it looks like he is hiding behind his mother’s skirts and that is not good for him or for the Queen.’

For his part, the Duke is said to be committed to his legal team’s three-point plan: resolve the legal case, exonerate him — possibly with an apology — and, thirdly, work out what he does with the rest of his life. At the moment, the prospect of achieving any of this must seem remote but, despite reports that he is unhappy with recent advice, I am told Andrew is showing considerable resilience.

‘He has, in effect, been in lockdown ever since the Newsnight interview, so far longer than anyone else in the country, but he is coping,’ a source tells me.

He also remains convinced that the inconsistencies in the Virginia Roberts account will tell in the end. Friends who have discussed the case with him tell me that he always points out the claims she made ahead of their first encounter: that he was drinking (he is teetotal); and that originally she had alleged there were four encounters, while in her writ there were just three. One figure says: ‘I have to say that he has always been utterly consistent with me; he has no recollection of meeting Roberts let alone any of things she alleges they did.’

The Palace has been kept in the dark about the strategy and there is anxiety that the legal team the Duke has assembled is not able to fight a case under U.S. law. The optics of the case do not look good: Andrew’s stonewalling did not impress the New York judge, Lewis Kaplan, who warned his lawyers against wasting time and money on technicalities.

With days until the next hearing in the U.S., these are critical times for the Duke of York and the good name of the monarchy. Changing lawyers at this late stage, say sources close to Andrew, could be ‘counter-productive’. On the other hand, it could produce the breakthrough that has so far eluded even the brilliant Mr Bloxsome.

A new, winning strategy might even be worth throwing a party for.

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