Front Bench: Theresa May's great Commonwealth plan may have gone pear-shaped, but the Irish border should offer a distraction

Daniel Capurro
This has been a tough summit for May - AFP

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Front Bench

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting continues today, and all eyes will be on the probable selection of Prince Charles to succeed the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. The decision is expected to made at Windsor Castle today, but whether there will be an announcement is unclear. For the Government however, it look set to be a weekend of painful self-analysis.

This summit was meant to be the big relaunch of Global Britain and the restoration of the Commonwealth to its rightful place at the heart of British foreign policy.

The twenty minutes I accidentally spent yesterday trying to navigate the roadblocks and Household Cavalry patrols around the Mall were testament to the effort put into what is usually a much more low-key event. Despite this, the entire week has been dominated by the Windrush scandal.

‘I hope it is not widespread’

Although the debacle has drifted off of most front pages, today’s comment sections are dominated by debate over Britain’s attitude to immigration. With May still to face the gauntlet of a close-of-summit press conference, there’s still scope for more difficult moments.

Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, gave a sense of the mood at the summit. He told The Times that “low level” bureaucrats had been insensitive to the contribution of immigrants, but that “I hope it is not a widespread cultural practice within the UK”. However, he added that “if it is, then perhaps these individuals should go through a period of introspection to understand that Britain is a multicultural society, that it was built on immigrant labour and that … everyone who contributed must have a space in this society, … not to have them detained and deported.”

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were making the case yesterday that Britain is a pro-immigration country, while critics were piling in on Theresa May for her time at the Home Office. There were also efforts to blame David Cameron for his “tens of thousands” migration target. With Cameron out of the picture that’s quite easy to do, but the target is alive and well despite his departure.

Next week doesn’t look great either

Whether or not the Commonwealth represents the future, there’s still the small matter of the present to be sorted out. That looks all the more difficult this morning. The Telegraph’s Europe Editor, Peter Foster, has the story that the UK’s plans to avoid a hard Irish border were subjected to a “systematic and forensic annihilation” this week at a meeting between senior EU officials and Olly Robbins, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator.

The failure to make a proposal that the EU sees as enforceable raises the prospect of the UK being stuck in the customs union. That, or the PM will have to renege on her promise on the Irish border. Despite all the technical difficulties of leaving the EU, it is still the border that will prove the hardest to solve.

One reason for that, which is rarely discussed, is the relative absence of the Irish border from the original referendum campaign. The lack of debate over the issue during the campaign means that the Government lacks any sort of Brexit mandate for compromise on Ireland.

The will of the people?

Returning to immigration, while Johnson often argued for more Commonwealth arrivals, there was also the “Breaking Point” poster and official campaign literature warning of waves of Turks moving to the UK. That mixed message has led to arguments in Cabinet about how pro-immigration the UK really is. But it also offers May plenty of concrete evidence to continue arguing for a low-immigration Britain.

In Ireland, the Prime Minister has Britain’s commitment to the globally significant Good Friday Agreement. What she doesn’t have is a mandate for Brexit which tells her how to handle the border.

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