Prince Andrew’s judgment, or the distinct lack of it, has long been an integral part of his character.
All too often, a reckless self-indulgence has obscured his other qualities: being well-meaning and trying to put his best foot forward.
His decision, therefore, to give a no-holds-barred interview to the BBC about his friendship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein — and, crucially, the claims that he had sex with a teenage girl — is more than just an air-clearing exercise.
It is the act of a gambler — and the stakes could not be higher.
For make no mistake, by sitting down and answering questions from Newsnight’s formidable presenter Emily Maitlis, Prince Andrew is putting his reputation on the line.
Prince Andrew is pictured with Epstein in Central Park in New York in February 2011
The omens for such television confessionals are not good. Neither Princess Diana unburdening herself to Panorama, nor Prince Charles opening up to Jonathan Dimbleby, were anything other than unintentional acts of self-harm. Both are remembered chiefly for their acknowledgement of mutual acts of adultery.
If candour alone sufficed, then Andrew’s remarkable admission that in his foolishness he had let the Queen down will be the stand-out moment from tonight’s broadcast.
This is the gambling equivalent of betting the house on the last spin of the roulette wheel — and Andrew has put it all on black.
While the BBC is naturally patting itself on the back for pulling off this great scoop, the Prince will be nervously wondering if this undoubtedly courageous decision was the right one.
So why did he do it? Quite simply, he felt he had no alternative. For months the rumours and gossip about Andrew and Epstein — and the explosive allegations from Virginia Roberts that she had been flown to London to have sex with the Prince — have hung around the Duke of York like a bad smell.
Far from ending the speculation, Epstein’s death at his own hand in a New York prison cell in August served only to revive the sordid stories of orgies, massage parlours and a private jet nicknamed the ‘Lolita Express’.
One story in particular persisted, the claim from Roberts that she and Andrew had sex together on no fewer than three occasions.
And then, of course, there was the apparently ‘compromising’ photograph of the Prince with his arm proprietorially around the bare midriff of the then 17-year-old girl.
Ever since these stories first surfaced, when prosecutors in the U.S. finally got to grips with Epstein’s disgusting activities, Andrew has relied on the usual sources to distance himself.
Prince Andrew has previously denied being aware of any of Epstein’s illegal activities. He is pictured above in 2010 answering the door of Epstein’s New York mansion
The allegations, said friends, were preposterous and untrue. But the arrest of the billionaire financier this summer, against the background of the #Me Too movement, dramatically changed the optics.
Andrew’s standing and even his ability to function as a working member of the Royal Family were under threat. In September, it was reported that at least one of the Prince’s official engagements during a visit to Northern Ireland had been cancelled because of concerns that the Epstein affair would overshadow it.
He began to aggressively counter-punch. Senior Palace sources categorically denied Roberts’s claim, pouring scorn on her assertion that she and Andrew had drunk cocktails together in Tramp, the West End nightclub.
They pointed out that: ‘The Duke doesn’t drink.’ However, in Roberts’s original testimony, she said: ‘Andrew got me a cocktail from the bar and he had a drink for himself.’
More significantly, doubts were also cast on the authenticity of the infamous midriff photograph, apparently taken in the London mews home of Andrew’s friend — and Epstein’s procurer of girls — Ghislaine Maxwell, who is also in the picture.
Officials questioned whether the photograph had been manipulated, from the fingers around the girl’s waist to the discrepancy in height between the two.
Andrew, said aides, had distinctively chubby or sausage fingers. ‘They don’t look right in the picture,’ it was said.
But while all this may have muddied the waters, the cut-through and clearing the air that Andrew was hoping for did not materialise. The suspicions and innuendo would not go away and the Duke remained on the back foot. The damage to his image was worsening by the day and it threatened to overshadow the wider public perception of the Royal Family.
Moreover, the drip, drip, drip of the claims was also endangering his major charity project — Pitch@Palace in which he helps to put would-be entrepreneurs in touch with investors and mentors.
Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell pictured together in New York in 2005
Rumours circulated that some of the blue chip companies involved were beginning to feel uncomfortable.
All the same, Prince Andrew did not rush into the Newsnight interview without weighing up the pros and cons. His calculation rested on this: by answering direct questions about Roberts’s claim, he knew he could be accused of lying. Dramatically, he then took the bull by the horns, first consulting the Queen, not just for her permission to film the confrontation in the South Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, but also for her approval.
Even so, the Duke agonised over the wisdom of doing it, pondering on what might go wrong as well as what might work.
In the end, his argument was simply that he had no other choice and needed to demonstrate to people that he has been telling the truth. At the same time, he knew he would have to agree to the BBC having a free-for-all in its line of questioning.
Pictured: Prince Andrew with Virginia Roberts and Ghislaine Maxwell
Nothing would be vetted beforehand. There were no pre-conditions. No royal has ever undergone such rigorous cross-examination. Both Diana and Charles knew what was coming in their interviews — Andrew did not.
BBC insiders tell me they were impressed with his candour and humility. For Andrew, the questioning must have been excruciating as he was interrogated about the most intimate of matters. We are told that tonight’s film comprises 50 minutes of tough, uncompromising questioning.
Last night, the BBC released two key exchanges. One about Roberts goes like this:
Maitlis: ‘She says she met you in 2001, she says she dined with you, danced with you at Tramp nightclub in London. She went on to have sex with you in a house in Belgravia belonging to Ghislaine Maxwell, your friend. Your response?’
Andrew: ‘I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady, none whatsoever.’
Maitlis: ‘You don’t remember meeting her?
But it will, I suspect, be the Prince’s response to questions about why he remained friends with Epstein that will stick in the memory. For they reveal a vulnerability and show just how affecting the allegations have been.
Asked about why he continued to see Epstein after his release from prison, Andrew admits he was wrong, saying: ‘I kick myself for it on a daily basis, because it was not something that was becoming of a member of the Royal Family and we try and uphold the highest standards and practices and I let the side down, simple as that.’
For the Prince, the whole nerve- shredding exercise has been to show that he has nothing to hide, that he has been wholly honest and truthful. ‘In a way,’ says a friend, ‘he is saying “judge me”. Everything else had failed, he had no alternative.’
Now the judgment rests with the British people. But, as brave as Prince Andrew’s decision has been to speak out, some no doubt will still say that if he is prepared to sit down with the television cameras, he should surely now be prepared to subject himself to the questions of the New York Police Department and the FBI.