“There has always been a funny smell about the 2007 sale of Sunninghill Park, the house near Windsor Castle that was given by the Queen as a wedding present to Prince Andrew.”
It’s not often that you can accuse the British newspaper the Mail on Sunday of understatement.
But with their opening salvo in what became a sustained attack on the credibility and probity of Britain’s least popular member of the royal family, Prince Andrew, in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, they were guilty of that rarest of tabloid crimes.
For the truth is that the sale of Prince Andrew’s former marital home house, dubbed SouthYork for its perceived Dallas-like vulgarity, seems distinctly murky.
The long version of events makes for fascinating reading for royal nerds, but the short version is equally gobsmacking and simply put: after languishing unsold on the market for several years, Sunninghill Park was sold for £3m above its £12m asking price to a Kazakh billionaire. It was then left to rot, unoccupied, for eight further years before finally being pulled down a few months ago.
Andrew was a regular visitor to Kazakhstan at the time of the sale as part of his role as UK Special Representative for Trade and Investment. He even went goose-hunting with then-President Nazarbayev, who just so happens to be the father in law of Timur Kulibayev, the buyer of his house.
For many months Andrew and the palace sought to hide the identity of Kulibayev, but the truth eventually came out due to dogged press reporting.
To cement the unappetizing nature of the deal, it was widely suspected that Prince Andrew was at the very least good friends with Goga Ashkenazi, a Russian socialite who had an affair with Kulibayev and is the father of his two children, at the time of the sale.
It has always been very clear that the deeply suspicious deal at the very least exposed Andrew to accusations of corruption. The Kazakhs appeared to be buying their way into Andrew’s affections.
When challenged on the issue, the palace has always insisted that the deal was legitimate and that Andrew was merely ‘fortunate’ to get such a good price for the house.
Well, yes, there is certainly no denying that.
However, where the palace has now been tripped up by the Mail is in its long held claim that Andrew was effectively ‘blind’ when it came to the sale, that he had absolutely nothing to do with the sale, that it was simply “a straight transaction” between ‘the trust’ that owned Sunninghill and the trust that bought it.
That claim, reiterated by Andrew’s spokespeople to the Daily Beast, has been seriously undermined by a leaked email in the Mail’s possession which shows that Amanda Thirsk--then a junior aide but now a senior member of Andrew’s team--allegedly discussed interior design and security arrangements with the Kazakhs, in a clear attempt to push the deal through.
She also secured a deal for Mr Kulibayev to lease two fields next to the mansion from the Crown Estate for a standard ‘grazing’ rent, the Daily Mail revealed (although it was ultimately not taken up).
Ms Thirsk had a face to face meeting in July 2007 with a Kazakh financier, Kenges Rakishev, to “run over a number of details regarding the sale,” the Mail says, and she then emailed Mr Rakishev on July 16 2007 to say: “It is not possible to organize armed security in the UK unless it is provided by the police.”
That Andrew’s people were sending such emails and taking such meetings can hardly be described as Andrew having nothing to do with the sale.
The Daily Mail also claimed that in the same email Ms Thirsk suggested that the buyer might like to hire Annabel Hall, the owner of a firm called Private Lives, to do the interior design of the mansion.
The Mail alleged that Ms. Hall duly emailed the following week, saying it would be “a pleasure” to give the property a facelift since it “needs imaginative transformation from a tired, empty house into a warm and beautiful home for a young family.”
Although the palace would make no comment beyond the routine statement to the Daily Beast (“The sale of Sunninghill Park was a straight commercial transaction between the trust which owned the house and the trust which bought it.”), the Independent appears to have been briefed that Andrew will simply attempt to brazen it out once again. The paper says: “It is understood that Buckingham Palace does not believe that the emails allegedly uncovered by the Mail show the Duke of York or his private office actively engaging in negotiations over the Sunninghill sale. They are seen as merely showing someone in the Duke’s private office putting relevant parties in contact with each other without actively negotiating over the transaction.”
In an amusing coda, Andrew subsequently attempted to get his Kazakh contacts bank accounts with Coutts, the Queen’s bankers, a move which his office claimed to the Mail was part of his remit as a business ambassador to drum up trade for British companies.
But a source at Coutts told the Mail: “Kazakh oligarchs are the sort of people we generally don’t touch with a bargepole.”
Chris Bryant MP, a former Foreign Office minister, told The Telegraph: “This confirms what many people suspected about Prince Andrew. He has very questionable tastes when it comes to his business relationships. When I was at the Foreign Office it was very difficult to see in whose interests he was acting. He doesn’t exactly add lustre to the Royal diadem.”