Dozens of Commonwealth countries are understood to have raised concerns over Boris Johnson using his role as chair of the organisation to hinder the reappointment of its secretary general, Patricia Scotland.
One high commissioner said Downing Street’s behaviour was “redolent of a colonial mindset”, while the president of one Pacific island nation, Kiribati, has written to all heads of Commonwealth to say he was perplexed and disturbed at the way his objections to Lady Scotland’s treatment have been ignored.
Scotland, a Labour peer and former attorney-general, has been secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations since 2016. Its 54 heads of government had been expected to decide her future at their biennial summit, Chogm, this month but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A proposal for an automatic four-year reappointment was made amid uncertainty over when the next Chogm might take place.
In a letter to heads of government on 8 June, Johnson said there was “a significant and diverse” number of objections from Commonwealth states to Scotland automatically staying on for a second four-year term.
Her future is expected to be raised at a virtual meeting on Wednesday, called to discuss the economic damage caused by coronavirus on low- to middle-income Commonwealth countries. Sources said the informal meeting was proposed by the secretary general at very short notice. Several member states will be represented by officials.
Downing Street has been unhappy with Scotland for some time amid reports of cronyism and profligacy. External reports have accused her of circumventing normal competitive tendering processes, including when she awarded a lucrative consultancy contract to a company run by a friend. She denies this, and claims she was cleared by the auditors KPMG.
Scotland was attorney general under Tony Blair, and some feel her politics may not be appropriate as the government forges ahead with setting up a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The process of countries letting their views be known about Scotland’s future is not fully transparent, but her supporters claim she has the backing of up to 40 out of the 54 nations.
Behind the row is a wider debate about whether Downing Street regards the Commonwealth primarily as a trading opportunity, or an independent political voice. Small states, often ignored in the Commonwealth, also feel they need a stronger voice and that Scotland provides this.
Scotland’s current contract expires at the end of this week, and Johnson, currently “chair-in-office” for the Commonwealth, has suggested she remain in place temporarily to allow her future to be addressed at the next Chogm.
No date has been set for that summit, and Scotland’s supporters argue she could be reappointed this week so as not to leave the organisation with a lame duck leader at a time of international crisis. She has the strong support of Caribbean countries and is understood to also have the support of Nigeria, Malaysia and Kenya.
With the UK currently chair of the Commonwealth, it is in charge of the reappointment process. Johnson has insisted the organisation has always operated by consensus, and that consensus does not exist for Scotland’s reappointment.
Critics fear that if Johnson pushes the consensus requirement to the point where there has to be complete unanimity, the leadership battle could drag on.
In a letter to Johnson, circulated to all Commonwealth heads of government, Taneti Maamau, the president of Kiribati, said he was deeply saddened he had received no response from Johnson to a letter sent in January calling for Scotland’s reappointment.
He wrote: “This is not in accordance with the spirit of the Commonwealth, where each of us, no matter how small, are treated equally and with due respect as independent sovereign states who have joined the Commonwealth to support one another.”
He said all leaders appreciated Scotland’s work, adding that many were perplexed and disturbed by events. The president of the Seychelles, Danny Faure, has also written to Johnson this week describing Scotland’s work as exemplary.
Downing Street insists its concerns about Scotland relate solely to the failure of the Commonwealth secretariat under her leadership to follow proper procurement rules, a claim it says has been upheld by external auditors.
Scotland has been most criticised for awarding a contract to KYA Global, a company owned by a fellow Labour peer, Lord Patel. The contract was to carry out a review of the Commonwealth secretariat, but evidence of work on this review is sparse.
The UK government suspended its entire £4.7m funding of the Commonwealth secretariat this year. New Zealand followed suit but is understood to have reinstated its contributions.
Scotland, born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, has received the strongest support from the Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries, including at their inter-sessional summit in Barbados in February. The group “expressed their overwhelming support for the renewal of the term of office of the secretary general”.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ prime minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, said in February he was confident that Scotland would be reappointed to serve a second term. “We think that the attempts to hound her out are entirely unacceptable, and that those who are doing so must cease it. It is unbecoming,” he said
The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, is another strong supporter, saying: “It would appear that this unavoidable decision will present some disruption in the way the Commonwealth runs its affairs. It is my view that it would be invidious to have an important organisation such as the Commonwealth present a picture of uncertainty, if not a vacuum, to the world at such a critical time.”
A government spokesperson said: “Decisions on appointing secretaries general are a matter for all Commonwealth heads of government collectively. These decisions must be taken by consensus, and have typically been made at Commonwealth heads of government meetings.
“As the current chair-in-office, the UK is working with other Commonwealth countries on the process of appointing a secretary general for the next four-year term.”