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MICHAEL WHITE: On the customs union and Windrush, flailing Theresa May is winging it

To leave or not to leave? Picture: Gary Barker - Credit: Gary Barker

‘Deal or no deal? It appears that Theresa May’s big idea is not to have one’: writes Michael White.

It’s obvious that none of us really have a clue about what’s actually happening at this critical stage of Theresa May’s three-way Brexit negotiation with Brussels and her own party.

After Thursday’s symbolic Commons vote on a form of UK/EU customs union we may know more – but I doubt it. Sleepwalker May probably doesn’t either, she’s winging it. Her big idea is not to have one.

In his customary saloon-bar manner Ken Clarke shrugs off the weekend’s rival threats and briefing as all sides just ‘fooling about’ on ‘the panic of the day,’ actually the key to Brexit. That sounds about right. Remember, that half-baked threat – check it for Boris’s DNA – of a confidence vote which surfaced briefly this week is a two-way weapon that can just as easily be turned against hard Brexiteers by the magic word ‘Corbyn’.

The threat is meant to confront uppity MPs with a false binary choice: May’s amorphous deal or no deal. But there are other options. And smart lawyers like Labour’s Keir Starmer and Tory Dominic Grieve are working on options that prevent the economy going over the white cliffs of Dover – lorries backed up to the M25 – next March 29. Brexit fog in the Channel is yet to clear. We face months more of blatant public manoeuvres and backstairs haggling.

But on the week’s other big political controversy, we have 20/20 fog-free vision. The government has suffered a humiliating train crash over what I will blandly describe as its flimsy efforts – a triumph of packaging over content – to recalibrate Britain’s 21st Century relationship with its former Empire, the 53 highly disparate nations that make up the Commonwealth.

Not a royal train crash for the Queen, I hasten to add. In that mysterious way of hers that has kept the royal puffer on the rails for so long, Her Maj steamed through what is billed as her last Commonwealth conference (CHOGM) as serenely as ever. She was untouched by the unhappily coincidental Windrush migrant scandal which found May and Amber Rudd tied to the track.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s declared reservations (he’s against fixing jobs for the kids), the Queen even managed to stitch up the organisation’s non-executive chairmanship for her boy. Charlie Windsor got the job on hereditary merit, you understand, though he hasn’t invested the time and effort that Mummy put in for decades. He’s also less empathetic (and that’s putting it empathetically). Despite patronising misrepresention of both of them in Netflix’s The Crown, HMQ got on well with Ghana’s new PM, Kwame Nkrumah, after 1957 and many in his pioneering wake. She’s worked her constituency.

The new royal job share is a quaint detail, though an interesting one in an age of soft power networking. Emmanuel (‘populism will lead us into the abyss’) Macron has again been showing everyone how it works by visiting Trump Town this week, despite falling poll ratings at home which might yet upset his panier de pommes – if French rail strikers or Angela Merkel’s veto on major eurozone reform don’t get him first.

The Commonwealth is about soft power and Britain has been far less assiduous at exploiting/cultivating old ties than the French have their own much more controlling version in the decades since decolonisation. Senior UK ministers rarely visit Africa, junior trade, aid and foreign ministers change too often to be much use (bye, bye Priti Patel). Not that they visit China or India enough either.

Prickly nationalistic prime ministers like Narendra Modi – India matters, even Whitehall must dimly remember the Raj – easily get offended, so we read. Modi does so when May fails to include him in the VIP ring-around on important issues or when a terrorist attack includes an Indian-related angle. Indian GDP will overtake ours – and Germany’s – sooner than we think.

So by stepping in and offering to host the 2017/18 CHOGM after micro-Pacific Vanuatu got battered by Hurricane Pam, May seemed belatedly to be signalling that ‘Global Britain’ knows it must try much harder in the Brexit world it is trying to shape. The royals will have to pull their weight too.

At 92 the Queen is a CHOGM draw – the poor woman was rewarded by that naff official ‘birthday’ concert – and many more heads of governments (the HOGMs in CHOGM) than usual turned up for the London plenary and the ‘informal’ trip to Windsor. Even Modi came. Though the BJP leader is cooler on Britain than on other G7 states (the ones which never occupied India) the Commonwealth is an emerging market forum where he doesn’t have to play second sitar to China’s Xi.

Alas, the mood had already soured after the Guardian revealed that Downing St had rejected an Afro-Caribbean Commonwealth appeal for talks about those Windrush generation migrants facing an unexpected 2018 re-run of the chilly ‘welcome’ to Britain they got in 1948.

Cold and wet, war-ravished and much of it distinctly Powellite (‘No blacks or Irish’) ’40s Britain was embarking on a journey to a multicultural future without realising it. We were reminded as much by this month’s 50th anniversary of the Tory maverick’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Wolverhampton. Race relations in 2018 are much better – yes, they really are – despite the suicide bombers and the Poundland Powell, Nigel Farage.

So how serious a stain will this affair leave on Britain’s reputation and the May government’s? Is it another brief flare-up after which the 24/7 media and public opinion will move on? The sensible answer is usually ‘probably,’ but this row may have sturdier legs.

Why? Because it speaks to a larger narrative, one of short-sighted insularity and arrogance, of callousness and incompetence that amplify the way many see Brexit itself, including Commonwealth leaders who openly opposed it. They have gone their own ways too since 1973, but didn’t want the Commonwealth network’s voice in Brussels reduced to Malta and Cyprus.

Knowing the ‘not fit for purpose’ dysfunctionality of the Home Office (my Kiwi wife struggled to get the passport to which she was entitled 30 years ago) I hesitate to add ‘racism’ to the charge list, not in a week which has seen contrite ministers announce a Stephen Lawrence Day. Callous incompetence (police corruption too in the Lawrence murder) can be pretty colour blind.

Labour had a pretty spotty reputation on race in the ’60s and ’70s, when Ted Heath treated Uganda’s refugees far better than Jim Callaghan had Kenya’s. That said, the Brown government’s administrative decision to discard Windrush generation landing cards in 2009 (until the Financial Times found traces in the National Archive) was no more than careless. May’s ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants was calculated policy.

Again, there is a legitimate case, one legal migrants understand, for getting tougher than sloppy Britain often has been with people smugglers, blatant overstays, recidivist Romanian criminals and wealthy businessmen whose wives prefer the NHS’s free maternity wards to those at home. It’s not just about pandering to prejudice, as some claim.

But May’s awful ‘Go Home’ vans touring migrant neighbourhoods frightened respectable people and allowed our EU friends to feel superior, as if the ‘jungle’ camps at Calais did not reflect their tougher asylum procedures – not just admiration for our weather and cuisine.

It was meant to sound macho (Nick Timothy’s influence again?) but proved inept and inhumane. The risk that it would cause paperwork problems for pre-1973 Windrush veterans in Brixton and Birmingham were flagged up long ago.

So the vicar’s daughter has again been caught showing the uncaring face of the ‘nasty party’ (copyright T. May). But the ambitious Rudd went along with it to burnish her own ‘tough on immigration, tough on the causes of immigration’ credentials and cover their shared failure to get net immigration numbers below 100,000, down from the 250,000 it was under Labour – and still was in 2016.

Liberal Middle Britain, Tory voters included, may hold that nastiness against them both in May 3 local elections. Illiberal Britain certainly will, now that the miscreants have promised citizenship with no questions asked, to pay for stricken families’ legal fees, for cancer treatment and new curtains. It is harder to get back lost jobs and homes, lives marooned by enforced separation.

Will old resentments resurface among Commonwealth leaders and their fast-expanding business communities? Or will pragmatism prevail? After his bilateral with May even artfully chippy Modi spoke of ‘opportunities to increase trade’ though everyone knows that India’s protectionist instincts will prove hard to crack. They also come with a price tag measured in UK visas.

Canada and others made polite noises, though not as ardent as Global Britain columnists and armchair Anglosphere nostalgics who despise the EU and UN, but only neglect the Commonwealth. They tell us that its share of the global markets is rising as the EU’s – ‘demography is destiny’ – falters; that it is also home to 2.4 billion people, one-third of the world’s population, to 40% of the under-40s. Just get on 
with it!

But the Commonwealth only got two belated paragraphs in Boris Johnson’s recent ‘Global Britain’ manifesto. Their high commissioners in London can read as well as Michel Barnier. They know that Brexit eyes are mostly fixed on the US and China, on the old ‘white Commonwealth,’ the countries to which we dispatched all those post-war ‘orphans’ on definitely racist grounds. If the Commonwealth was brushed aside for the EU in 1973 it has reasons to suspect short shrift again now.

Odder still, because they know more than we do about negotiating free trade agreements (FTAs) because they’ve had more practice lately. Some are even keen to help, maybe even to get back some agricultural markets lost in ’73, albeit at the expense of Pommie farmers. But they also know that so far it’s mostly talk. The Poms can’t even agree among themselves on whether to stay tied to the EU’s customs union or to go it alone.

What Windrush highlights yet again is a government in drift, lacking leadership and a sense of direction. In the blame game most players emerge badly. Her inexperience showing, Rudd blamed officials and – by implication – May. Bad move, Amber, but No 10 has not disowned you – yet.

Retaliatory leaks by her officials may change that. As Jack Straw famously remarked, the department is always full of policy ideas that might finish your career. In any case, someone should tell her that Tory leaders are elected from the right nowadays, just as Labour’s usually come in from the left. Rudd can relax, she’s in the wrong place.

As for the Opposition, Labour and the media, how well did they do their jobs? Badly. Alerted by a charity and distraught families, Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian’s poverty specialist, hammered away at the Windrush story for six months with little support from either until No 10’s clanger in rejecting a CHOGM meeting gave the Sun and Mail a chance to grab some credit.

Not to be outdone in the catch-up stakes Jake Rees-Mogg had the chutzpah to blame Remainers for the crisis by wanting to make Britain ‘the sort of country that demands to see your papers’.

As if Jake had never played footsie with Farage or voted for May’s ‘hostile’ 2014 immigration bill, the one on which Miliband-led Labour so bravely abstained.

It has been what MP David Lammy, himself a Windrush grandchild, rightly called a moment of ‘national shame,’ raw material for those campaigners against Nelson and Cecil Rhodes who insist that Britain comes to terms with its imperial past more honestly and with more contrition.

It was a bad deed, badly executed, rhetorical posturing for political advantage not matched by attention to practical detail. No wonder that 3 million UK-resident EU citizens twitch about fragile procedures to protect their own status.

None of which bodes well for the Brexit endgame in which both sides, UK and EU27, will be distracted by internal dissension and other issues. A sense of hasty improvisation now attends EU policy deliberations much as it does Whitehall’s, a feeling that leadership does not match the challenges ahead.

It is now clear that under the wounded Merkel the Berlin coalition will not countenance serious eurozone reform, as advocated by Martin Schultz and president Macron. Stalled growth in the first quarter has suddenly set alarm bells ringing in Brussels. Tough times do not make for generous attitudes towards those who boast they are leaving a ship which, if not actually sinking, is listing hard to starboard.

Team Barnier confronts a British cabinet squabbling with itself. Brexiteers are keen to damage Rudd’s post-May leadership claims. There is loose talk of Liam Fox or even Boris Johnson resigning if this summer’s drama over the/a customs union goes against them. No 10 reportedly ‘war games’ a resignation scenario in which they both go, but Michael Gove – always the one to watch – finds his tortured conscience allows him to fight on. Everyone denies everything.

On Monday night the Lords clocked up another vote for soft Brexit, a 71-strong majority for retaining adhesion to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and related protection of individual citizen rights against arbitrary state power of the kind that so damaged Windrush lives. Who are the ‘saboteurs’ and ‘enemies of the people’ now?

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