Margareta Pagano: The politic Prince who pulls political strings

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The Independent Online

The first time I met Prince Andrew was at a private dinner downstairs at the Ritz in the dining room next to the casino. At the Prince's table there was a mix of some of the country's top industrialists and bankers. My conversation with him that evening centred on a rather arcane aspect of Swiss banking tax. What struck me about him – and in following meetings – is how surprisingly well briefed he was. More importantly, he was sufficiently on top of his subject to engage in detailed argument.

His interview with the International Herald Tribune last week has caused a predictable outpouring of criticism over his alleged rebuke that the US didn't heed UK military advice in Iraq. Then Air Miles Andy came under attack for using private jets on his current business trip to the US.

Of course Prince Andrew's job as Britain's trade envoy is political, and this is acknowledged by his advisers. The Prince is well aware of the political implications of his role and was the least surprised at the response to the interview.

What everyone seems to have missed in the hysteria over his Iraq comments is that the Prince knew exactly what he was saying; whether you think he was naive is another matter.

So what does he actually do as trade ambassador? He's hired by UKTI, the trade and investment arm of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to work for British business at home and abroad. His role is to get to places and people that others can't. The Prince works closely with a handful of companies with big overseas operations such as BP, Shell, Rolls-Royce, International Power and Serco where he can be most effective.

Business people tell me he's been really useful, getting to people even they as FTSE 100 chairmen can't always reach. There is one story of a UK oil company embroiled in a complex row with a former Soviet-bloc oil producer. The chief executive, who was about to lose many hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue, couldn't make headway with the authorities so called for the Prince's help. The Prince got to see the president of the country, smoothed out the wrangle and UK plc is now much the richer.

And it's because of his royal credentials that the Prince concentrates on the trickiest places where piston still counts; countries like Libya, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan where he plays the roving medieval-style diplomat with a twist of 007. He's a hit in the Middle East, Jordan and the Gulf States where he is friendly with many of the younger royals.

Ask any headhunter working for FTSE 100 companies or other international companies who they are searching for, and they will tell you there is an insatiable need for people with this experience of the East and the emerging world. Helping him bone up for his missions is his 12-strong Duke of York business council, which meets in his rooms at Buckingham Palace each month.

After his sister the Prince is now the busiest royal. Last year he had 550 official engagements. About 400 were trade related, half in the UK and half overseas. UKTI pays only for travel and expenses. He's obliged to seek out scheduled flights if he can as every flight has to be put out to tender, and then audited by the Royal Visits Committee. Even when his Gulf friends lend him their jets he has to declare and justify them.

In the US this week Prince Andrew will be flying by private jet; he has seven cities to visit in 10 days with 50 meetings lined up. He's been to Miami and Lake Charles and will be going to Louisiana, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta and New York. He has met medics at a life science park to discuss collaborating on spinal injury work with UK universities and while in Lake Charles he was with BG at its liquified petroleum plant.

He took the job over seven years ago from the Duke of Kent, who did it for 25 years. The question is whether this is a real job, and whether Prince Andrew is the right man for it. On the first count, everyone I have spoken to this week says there is a need for someone to do this role. There is a division about whether the Prince is the right person, and whether it should be a royal personage in the job.

Two names mentioned to me who would perform the role well were it to become suddenly vacant were Richard Lambert, the CBI chief who already sits on the Duke's council, and Clara Furse, the London Stock Exchange's chief executive. But no one of any seniority was prepared to say this on the record. And if the Prince has got people split in this way – 50:50 – one can only conclude he is doing something right.