The Royal Family will take a leading role in Britain’s Brexit charm offensive as the leaders of the Commonwealth arrive in London this week.
This year it is the UK’s turn to host the 53 leaders for the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known as CHOGM.
It is anticipated the UK government will aim to use it to leverage future trade deals when Britain leaves the EU.
Lord Howell, president of the Royal Commonwealth Society and a former minister for the Commonwealth, told Sky News that Britain’s desire to secure trade deals adds a new dynamic to this year’s gathering.
He said: “I think we’ve reached a moment of huge change in Britain’s position in the world and in a sense we are going back to the Commonwealth family.
“For about the last 20 or 30 years there has been no interest at all in the Commonwealth, frankly, in Britain… although we are nominally members of it.
“But for the last two or three years since Brexit there is an enormous search on for new consumer markets and new export destinations.”
On Thursday, the Queen, in her role as head of the Commonwealth, will officially open the meeting and welcome the 53 leaders at Buckingham Palace with the theme “a common future”.
But from today a series of discussion forums will be held at venues across London, looking at some of the world’s most pressing global challenges.
Prince Harry will attend the youth forum on Monday morning, his first event as the new Commonwealth Youth Ambassador. He has been given the title by the Queen.
Prince Charles will attend events focused on climate change and plastics in the oceans.
The Duchess of Cornwall and Meghan Markle will separately attend the women’s forum, while Prince William and Prince Andrew will go to business events.
Other member countries will not want Brexit to dominate the agenda, but it is inevitable that UK ministers and businesses will want to use it to look for post-Brexit opportunities.
John Shepherd is managing director of Partridges, a London-based food and drink retailer.
The business has a royal warrant for supplying the Queen and is a Commonwealth Export Champion.
Mr Shepherd told Sky News it did not make business sense to just look to our closest neighbours in the EU and ignore the Commonwealth.
“The world is shrinking, we’re being asked for orders to be sent in the post to Australia, Canada, all around the world, and I never thought it would happen but deliveries have just improved so dramatically in recent years that it’s not an argument anymore.”
In a key Brexit speech in January, Theresa May talked about Britain’s links with the Commonwealth as an opportunity saying: “Instinctively, we want to travel to, study in, trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond the borders of our continent.
“Even now as we prepare to leave the EU, we are planning for the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 – a reminder of our unique and proud global relationships.”
Entrepreneur Dinesh Dhamija, the founder of travel firm Ebookers and a supporter of the group Open Britain, believes we cannot just rely on the Commonwealth to fill the trade gap when we leave the EU.
“There’s something called trade distance gravity, that the further you go the more difficult it is to trade,” said Mr Dhamija.
“Yes we had great colonies in Australia, NZ, Canada, but look at the trade we do with them. It’s 10% of our trade and 65% with all these other countries, so… we cannot pin our hopes on it and geography is against us.”
The Commonwealth is made up of 53 countries and 2.4 billion people – nearly a third of the world’s population.
Critics believe it is a hangover from the British Empire and merely a talking shop with no real influence on the international stage.
But the Commonwealth Secretariat has high hopes for this week’s CHOGM, describing it as a chance to “address the shared global challenges we face and agree actions on how to create a better future for all”.
This is likely to be the last CHOGM that the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, is able to attend in person. The meeting in 2020 is due to be held in Malaysia and the Queen no longer travels to long haul destinations.