LONDON — Theresa May had plenty to thank the royal family for this week.
Their resplendent palaces and castles provided the backdrop for a meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government that was supposed to be a chance for May to show off her post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy but ended up overshadowed by the U.K.s treatment of the so-called Windrush generation.
While May did spend the meetings final press conference on Friday reassuring Commonwealth leaders that members of the Windrush generation who had suffered as a result of the governments immigration rules would be paid compensation, the royals provided a welcome distraction.
It wasnt Prince Harry and Meghan Markle who saved the day, although they brought a welcome injection of youth and glamor to proceedings, it was Prince Charles.
It was confirmed on Friday that Charles will one day succeed Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of Commonwealth, which resulted in much back-slapping and questions from journalists about the “not very democratic or diverse unelected head of one state” asking leaders to appoint her son as the next head of the 53-country organization.
That controversy, however mild, took some of the heat off May and allowed her escape questioning over an immigration clampdown stemming from her time as home secretary.
It was reported this week that thousands of people from the Caribbean who arrived in the U.K. as children were being threatened with deportation. Members of the Windrush generation (named after the Empire Windrush ship which transported families from Caribbean countries) were told they were in Britain illegally despite having lived and worked in the country for decades.
May was forced to apologize and then, on Friday, pledged to “do whatever it takes” to fix the problem and promise compensation to “resolve the anxieties and problems which some of the Windrush generation have suffered.”
Ups and downs
The Commonwealth summit was always going to be fraught with danger for May. Declarations by Brexiteers about the Commonwealth trade potential after Brexit combined with vocal leaders who wanted something in return, made delivering anything of substance on trade a tough ask.
They settled on a joint statement resisting “all forms of protectionism” and an action plan for a “connectivity agenda for trade and investment.”
While many of the Commonwealth leaders came with their own wishlists, they were polite enough to indulge the British prime minister.
An end of summit statement expressed unanimous opposition to the use of chemical weapons, and a commitment to strengthen the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention — a nod to Mays front-footed approach to the chemical weapons attack in Syria and to the poisoning of a Russian former spy in Sailsbury.
On less contentious ground, May pledged to ban plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds — and couldnt help but mention that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was going to follow her lead at the G7 summit in Canada this summer.
But it was a question from a Nigerian journalist at the press conference on Friday that highlighted one of the many political pitfalls of doing business with the Commonwealth.
He asked about the potential for more freedom of movement within the Commonwealth given all the talk of free trade.
May, in typically reticent manner, didnt answer.
No wonder. Britains post-Brexit immigration policy is a subject to avoid even in the privacy of Cabinet, let alone in public.
So May made it through the Commonwealth summit, but it was hardly a resounding success for a prime minister who seems dogged by bad luck (much of it of her own making).
Yet she did get some face time with the leaders of potential future trading partners including India and Canada. She will also spend some time with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is staying on at the Britishs prime ministers country retreat, Chequers — although Turnbull was caught looking at his phone while listening to May during a meeting at Windsor Castle earlier Friday.
For May, this week was a lesson in the contradictions of Global Britain and the difficulty of putting it into practice.