A claim by Prince Andrew during his controversial BBC interview to have first met the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in 1999 has been thrown into doubt after it emerged that the duke’s previous chief of staff said the two men met in “the early 1990s”.
The claim was made by Alastair Watson, the prince’s private secretary for nine years until 2012, who wrote a letter to the Times in 2011 in order to reject reports that the Duke was a friend of Saif Gaddafi, son of the former Libyan dictator.
Addressing reports at the time about the prince’s relationship with Epstein, Watson said the two men were introduced in the early 1990s and that “insinuations and innuendos” about Andrew were without foundation.
Buckingham Palace pushed back at suggestions of an apparent discrepancy in the account given by the prince in his BBC interview last weekend, when he said he had met Epstein through the US financier’s girlfriend in 1999.
“The duke’s words in the interview speak for themselves,” said a spokesperson.
The development came as BT has said it will not work with a digital training scheme that counts Prince Andrew as patron, amid a growing exodus after the duke’s unrepentant interview about his friendship with Epstein and pressure from a woman who says the convicted child sex offender trafficked her to London to meet the royal and have sex with him.
The telecoms firm said it was reviewing its ties with the Duke of York Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA), an independent digital skills scheme with whom it is partnered, in light of its relationship with Andrew.
“We have been working with the company since its launch in 2017 and our dealings have been with its executive directors, not its patron, the Duke of York,” a BT spokesperson said. “As a leading provider of online digital skills training, iDEA was a natural partner for our new Skills for Tomorrow programme.
“However, in light of recent developments we are reviewing our relationship with the organisation and hope that we might be able to work further with them, in the event of a change in their patronage.”
In an apparent attempt to limit damage, a page on the iDea website listing Salesforce, Google, BT and Microsoft as “corporate partners” has been deleted. Microsoft said it had supported the prince’s entrepreneurial scheme, [email protected], some years ago but had no ongoing involvement.
[email protected] has also removed its webpage listing corporate supporters, and the educational charity Outward Bound Trust, which has a long association with the royal family, will consider his role as patron at a board meeting this week.
Amid an unravelling of corporate support for the enterprise, at least one major company that has been involved with it is hoping that Andrew could step aside for another royal such as Prince Harry or Prince William.
On Tuesday, Andrew was due to visit emergency workers and evacuated residents in Stainforth and Fishlake, near Doncaster, during a tour with the army. But the trip to flood-hit South Yorkshire was cancelled.
The duke had been due to offer his “support and thanks” to the emergency services but with an election campaign and a politician also visiting, it was not felt appropriate for the visit to continue due to purdah rules, Buckingham Palace confirmed.
Meanwhile, two Australian universities publicly severed ties with [email protected] on Tuesday after the banking services company Standard Chartered withdrew its support for the scheme – which claims to have generated more than 6,000 jobs – citing “commercial reasons”.
On Monday, it emerged that KPMG, a founding partner of the initiative, would not be renewing its sponsorship, which ended on 31 October.
Andrew, who has failed to express regret over his friendship with Epstein, is facing mounting scrutiny amid allegations he had sex with Virginia Giuffre, then Roberts, who had allegedly been coerced by the financier when she was 17 and with whom the prince has been pictured. He has strenuously denied her claims.
Barclays recently renewed its sponsorship of [email protected], but is understood to be monitoring the situation, while AstraZeneca’s three-year partnership with the initiative is due to expire at the end of this year and is being reviewed.
The English National Ballet said its patronage was being discussed by trustees, following reports that senior figures within the institution were lobbying for Andrew to be ousted as a patron.
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia said it had concluded its involvement with [email protected] in October and was committed to ensuring its campus remains “a safe and inclusive place to work and study”.
Bond University was preparing to consider working again with [email protected] in 2020, but “in light of recent events, the university does not intend to seek any further involvement”. Murdoch University in Perth was “reviewing its support of the PitchPalace event in 2020”.
London Metropolitan University will review the prince’s role as patron at a board of governors’ meeting next week, and a student panel at Huddersfield University has passed a motion to lobby the duke to resign as their chancellor.