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LONDON — That awkward moment when you have to play nice with the heir to the throne who’s reportedly seething at your asylum plans.
Brace for some weapons-grade discomfort this week as Boris Johnson and Prince Charles meet in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali in the wake of a major row that’s played out in the pages of the U.K. media.
The British prime minister and the country’s future monarch will both take part in Friday’s Commonwealth summit opening ceremony, with Johnson giving a speech.
Both sides will be hoping a bust-up over Johnson’s controversial plan — currently paused by the courts — to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda doesn’t overshadow a summit that marks a major test of diplomatic tact for two men not exactly known for holding back.
In an extraordinary intervention that raised eyebrows in government, the Times reported that Charles had privately described the deportation policy as “appalling.” Clarence House put out a rare statement not denying the remarks by the prince but saying it wished to “restate that he remains politically neutral” and that “matters of policy are decisions for government.”
Cue some hostile briefing in the other direction, with one Cabinet minister telling the Sunday Times that Charles “is an adornment to our public life, but that will cease to be charming if he attempts to behave the same way when he is king. That will present serious constitutional issues.”
Despite Clarence House’s assertions, Charles has already shown signs he will be a more political monarch than his mother, with his strong views on the environment and urban planning well-known.
But the latest row could hardly come at a more sensitive time for the Commonwealth, a 54-member association of former British territories, as it faces big questions over its future.
“The Commonwealth is a sort of imperial hangover. It was a way of somehow continuing those relationships after the end of the British empire,” said Hans Kundnani of the foreign policy think tank Chatham House. “Partly because of that it’s always going to have this stigma. It’s never quite going to be embraced by some of these countries unless you radically rethink it.”
It’s Charles’s first appearance at the Commonwealth summit since taking over its stewardship from Queen Elizabeth. And it comes as the relationship between the Commonwealth and the British monarchy looks increasingly frayed.
Countries that have no colonial ties to the U.K., Gabon and Togo, are applying to join and Commonwealth realms such as Barbados, Jamaica and Australia are either opting to remove the monarch as head of state or laying the groundwork to do so.
Australia is also making noises about ditching the monarchy altogether.
The country’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who will not attend the summit, has appointed Matt Thistlethwaite as assistant minister for the republic — the first time Canberra has explicitly had a Cabinet minister assigned to the task. While it sent a signal that the new center-left Labor PM is seeking to call a referendum on the issue, the government has ruled out a vote in its first three-year term.
Still, Thistlethwaite noted in a video posted to social media last week that “as the queen comes to the twilight of her reign, it’s time to discuss what’s next for Australia and if we want an Australian to be our head of state in the future.”
Amid questions over Britain’s broader Commonwealth role, Kundnani suggests the organization could even shift away from being a U.K.-led organization — and even move its headquarters to, for instance, Delhi in recognition of India’s influence.
For his part, Johnson is expected to focus this week on CHOGM priorities of food security and trade rather than his own immigration agenda.
However, the controversial agreement between London and Kigali will inevitably loom in the background as Rwanda seeks to demonstrate its credentials on the world stage despite accusations of human rights abuses and of interference in eastern Congo.
If royal opprobrium and an immigration storm weren’t enough, there is one more drama playing out in Rwanda for the Brits.
Commonwealth leaders will choose a new general secretary this week, with the U.K. officially backing Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith against the British incumbent, Patricia Scotland.
Scotland’s tenure has been mired in scandal over her expense claims, leading the government to conclude she has “not provided focused leadership,” in the words of one diplomatic official.
For her part, Scotland said the campaign against her was based on lies, and called on her critics to contribute positively to the Commonwealth or “get out of my way.”
As things stand, observers expect the British candidate to lose out to the British-backed candidate.
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.