A campaign to remove the secretary-general of the Commonwealth has descended into a race row.
The organisation’s bosses met on Thursday to discuss a report criticising Baroness Scotland over a £250,000 commission to a firm run by fellow Labour peer Lord Patel.
She was supported by envoys from Nigeria and Namibia, who reportedly said that predominantly white member countries did not want a black female leader.
A spokesman for Lord Patel, who served alongside Baroness Scotland in Gordon Brown’s government, claimed that the report was being used to ‘stop the Commonwealth’s first black leader being re-elected’.
One diplomat said the allies of Baroness Scotland, who was born in Dominica, were playing ‘the Meghan card’ – a reference to claims that criticism of the Duchess of Sussex is partly related to her colour.
Opponents of the secretary-general pointed out that previous Commonwealth chiefs have come from Guyana, Nigeria and India. And they said diplomats from South Africa and Ghana have questioned Lady Scotland’s record. The 64-year-old peer, who has been dubbed ‘Baroness Brazen’ and ‘Baroness Shameless’ over her lavish spending, is fighting to be reappointed when her four-year term expires in April.
A majority of Commonwealth leaders have said they do not want to confirm a second term and instead she has been given a three-month extension until a summit in Rwanda in June.
Baroness Scotland has always denied any wrongdoing. In 2017 she said: ‘It’s unfair to refer to me as Baroness Brazen.’ Asked in the same interview whether she believed she was criticised because she was a successful black woman, she replied: ‘That is for others to say. I’ve always been really focused on my career, doing what I can and allowing other people’s sexism, racism and prejudice to be their problem and not mine.’
Boris Johnson is said to be backing moves to persuade Amina Mohamed, a 58-year-old Kenyan politician, to challenge Baroness Scotland if she refuses to stand down. Miss Mohamed was born in Somalia and learned English by reading Sherlock Holmes novels as a child. She studied at Oxford, is a qualified lawyer and has worked for the World Trade Organisation and the UN environment programme.
A diplomatic source said the UK, Australia and Canada led the criticism of Baroness Scotland at Thursday’s crisis meeting of the Commonwealth’s governing body.
‘They pushed hard but there was resistance from Lady Scotland’s allies in the Caribbean,’ the source said.
‘The meeting was going against her until the end, when Nigeria and Namibia rallied behind her after the race card was played.’ Another insider said: ‘There is a clear wish for her to move on. It is hard for diplomats who work with her in London to criticise her to her face; what they say privately may be different.
‘And the leaders of those countries back home take a more hard-headed view. They know the big three (Britain, Australia and Canada) provide the funding for the projects they want.’
New Zealand has already pulled the plug on its annual grant of nearly £2million to the secretariat because it has ‘no confidence’ in Baroness Scotland. Australia is believed to be considering withholding £4million a year. Canada has refused to reinstate funds withdrawn in 2013.