YOU can’t choose your family, as people often complain, but friends are a different matter.

Many of us have loved ones from outwith our own DNA pool to whom we are closer than all but our dearest relatives. The world is a much better place as a result but, unlike with family, the bonds and obligations of friendship are less clear-cut. Sometimes ties wither naturally, at others, rash or destructive relationships have actively to be severed. This is an unpleasant fact of life and one that Prince Andrew is discovering belatedly to his cost.

For some time now, speculation has been mounting after the publication of a photo showing the Prince walking in a New York park with his friend, the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was recently found dead in a prison cell, where he awaited trial on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex-trafficking.

The headlines must have made the Palace shudder, their insinuations all too clear. After details of a US lawsuit mentioning him were released, a terse statement was issued distancing the Prince from historic accusations made against Epstein, and claiming that “Any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue.”

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Close observers of Buckingham Palace might have noticed a cloud of dust around the flagpole as the house was shaken to its foundations. When the Daily Mail published footage recently showing the Duke of York ushering a young woman out of Epstein’s Manhattan apartment in 2010, a further statement was issued. The Duke, it said, “deplores the exploitation of any human being and the suggestion he would condone, participate in or encourage any such behaviour is abhorrent.”

Poor Prince Andrew. He is discovering what every child in the playground knows: that you are tarred and feathered with the same brush as those with whom you mix. If one of your gang throws a brick through a window, you are deemed guilty too, even if you did nothing wrong.

In the case of His Royal Highness, let’s put aside for a moment the suspicions his closeness to Epstein, following his release from prison, arouse. Bad enough that Andrew’s personal contacts are so dodgy they raise serious questions about his judgement, let alone his behaviour.

If nothing else, these images suggest one of two things: that the Prince was a loyal chum who stuck by Epstein, despite his ruined reputation and the risk it posed to his own. Or that, living as he did in a gilded cage, removed from real life and the consequences of any stupid decisions he made, he was utterly unconcerned about the effect their friendship might have on his prospects. When you are cocooned from birth in a cradle of privilege when you are feted, indulged, and pandered to by sycophants and liggers from the minute you can shake a rattle, it must be easy to believe you are above the normal rules and standards by which society works.

Meeting in the park with Epstein was, at best, decidedly odd for someone in Prince Andrew’s position. Going to his apartment, however, where a stone satyr presides over the front door, was simply crazy. According to police who raided the property, they seized photos of underage girls. These and the fetishist decor would have led most ordinary visitors to make a swift exit.

These images of the Duke of York date from the period when he was acting as British “Special Representative” for Trade and Investment. A bespoke role for an aimless aristocrat, it gave him licence to roam the globe, meeting fat cats in rich countries and opportunistic states in the hope that some of their wealth would find its way into Britain’s Treasury.

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During his deployment as an envoy, Prince Andrew made various embarrassing “missteps”, among them some politically unwise associations. Nothing, however, could compare with being identified as one of Epstein’s cronies, after which revelation he relinquished the post.

As the grapevine quivers with anticipation over other high-profile names likely to be found in Epstein’s fat address book, the Duke’s predicament is increasingly grave. He can hide behind the Palace gates and hope the storm will pass, but this is a story that has been brewing for years. Until certain questions are satisfactorily answered, as far as he’s concerned it is far from over.

Doubtless, it will go against every royal instinct, but would he not be wiser to face the cameras, do an in-depth interview, and silence – perhaps even charm – his critics? In a situation like this, where unfettered gossip is fuelling supposition, Prince Andrew surely needs to explain his connection with Epstein and help suffocate the scandal. It would, of course, be a historic move. No member of the royal dynasty has ever voluntarily gone on record to put their side of a wildfire story, with the exception of Princess Diana. In her unforgettable, kohl-eyed interview with Martin Bashir, she was more focused on scoring points against Prince Charles than in illuminating her own often dubious actions.

Sticklers for Palace protocol might feel sick at the thought of Prince Andrew going public. Even in the hands of the most measured journalist – Kirsty Wark, say, or Fiona Bruce – it would be viewed as stepping into the lion’s den, a suicidally reckless act. Added to which, the Windsors do not explain. They take a long view, recognising that the passage of time usually allows even the most unsavoury episodes to fade into oblivion.

In this instance, however, that seems unlikely. So what is worse? Staying schtum, and waiting for more seedy revelations to be added to the blaze, or allowing the Duke to get ahead of the story, and give his version of events?

By remaining aloof, the Palace’s response suggests it hopes to avoid further fallout. The implication of this is all too plain: royals might not be above the law, but its arm would have to be very long indeed to winkle one of them out of the front door and into a Black Maria. Inviting a Windsor to a police interview, let alone into a courtroom, would require Herculean effort, and a mountain of cast-iron evidence. By contrast, if Andrew were willing to face, refute and defuse the rumours, it would be an act of bravery to restore family pride.