Prominent Britons scramble to repudiate links with Saif Qaddafi

Tony Blair, Prince Andrew, the London School of Economics and the Financial Times all in the frame over links with the Qaddafi family.

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LONDON // An undignified scramble was under way in Britain yesterday involving royalty, top politicians, academics and businessmen seeking to distance themselves from previously cosy relationships with Saif Qaddafi.

As the government embarked on the task of trying to trace and freeze up to £10 billion (Dh60bn) of Qaddafi family assets in the UK, Buckingham Palace was forced to make a statement saying it was "ludicrous" to suggest that Prince Andrew, the Queen's second son, had a "close personal relationship" with the Libyan dictator's second son.

Meanwhile, the former prime minister, Tony Blair, was attempting to justify his close personal relationship with Saif and his father, telling The Times that, while he was "appalled" by what was happening in Libya, it had been "extremely important for our own security and that of the rest of the world" to do business with the Qaddafi family.

More repentant was Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, who admitted that he was "embarrassed" that the university had accepted £1.5 million in research funding from Saif after he received his doctorate from the LSE two years ago.

Adding insult to injury, the LSE confirmed on Tuesday that it was investigating claims that Saif, who studied at the university from 2003 to 2008, used a ghost writer and plagiarised his thesis which, ironically, was entitled: "The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions."

The Daily Mail commented: "As the beleaguered Qaddafi fights to survive, there is a small group of increasingly desperate politicians disowning him in what, let's pray, are his final days.

"In the good times, these associates shamelessly sucked up to the genocidal maniac, and in many instances profited from the association."

But while Colonel Qaddafi has been happy to receive the British elite in his Tripoli villa or desert tent, Saif has proved a much more committed Anglophile, being entertained by the good and the great of British society on frequent visits.

Two years ago, he bought a £10 million house, complete with suede-lined cinema, in north London. He has overseen central London property purchases by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) amounting to at least £300m.

But it has been his relationship with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York who acts as Britain's international trade envoy, that has raised the most eyebrows.

The prince has hosted events at both Buckingham Palace and St James's Palace in London for the dictator's son. In addition to heading trade missions to Libya, the prince has also made three private visits there in recent years as Saif's guest.

A friend of the prince was quoted in the Daily Mail yesterday as saying: "He and Saif became incredibly close. Both enjoy having a good time and they had fun together. Andrew could open doors with his royal status and Saif could open other doors with his family's money."

This closeness led Chris Bryant, the shadow justice minister, to demand in the Commons on Monday that Prime Minister David Cameron sack the prince as trade envoy.

"Isn't it increasingly difficult to explain the behaviour of the UKTI [UK Trade and Investment] special ambassador for trade …?" asked Mr Bryant, a former foreign office minister. "Isn't it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke?"

Mr Cameron responded that he was not aware of the prince's connections with Saif but said he would be "very happy to look into them".

Questions are also being asked about Mr Blair's closeness to Saif and his father - which many blame for the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al Megrahi in 2009 - and also that of Lord (Peter) Mandelson, the former business secretary and éminence grise of the Labour Party during its 13 years in power.

Days before al Megrahi's release, Lord Mandelson and Saif were both guests at the Corfu villa belonging to billionaire financiers Jacob and Nat Rothschild.

Last November, the Spectator magazine reported that the pair were together once more, along with Mr Blair's wife Cherie, during a shooting party at the Rothschilds' country estate in Buckinghamshire.

Mr Cameron has taken a barely concealed swipe at both Lord Mandelson and Mr Blair by condemning "the appallingly dodgy dealings with Libya under the last [Labour] government".

In an interview with British journalists in June last year, Saif described Mr Blair, who was pivotal in bringing Libya out of the international wilderness in 2004, as a "personal family friend" who had visited Libya "many, many times" since leaving office in 2007.

He also claimed that Mr Blair had secured a consultancy role with the LIA, though Mr Blair has denied this. He has not, however, denied reports that his trips to Libya were in connection with his role as a highly paid consultant with JP Morgan, the US bank.

British banks, meanwhile, have been ordered by the UK treasury to trace the Qaddafi family assets and those of the LIA, whose global holdings are estimated by analysts at between £60 and £80 bn.

The authority is the fourth largest shareholder in Pearson, which publishes the Financial Times, Penguin books and other titles.

Marjorie Scardino, the company's chief executive, told reporters on Monday that she did not know what the asset freeze would mean for the company. "It's abhorrent to us what's happening in Libya and we've made it pretty clear that we're uncomfortable about the holding, but we work in a public market - companies don't choose their shareholders, shareholders choose the companies."

Right now, many in British high society are wishing that they had been rather more careful in choosing their friends.