“Britain fails to install Jamaican challenger as secretary-general”
Boris Johnson has failed to oust a Labour peer as leader of the Commonwealth after she narrowly survived a challenge from the foreign minister of Jamaica.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal will remain secretary-general after scraping enough votes during a long closed-doors session at the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda.
Scotland won 27 votes to Kamina Johnson Smith’s 24, though tradition means the outcome is presented as the unanimous, cordial decision of the 54 member states.
Scotland, who was a minister under Tony Blair and attorney-general under Gordon Brown, said the result was “deeply humbling”. Insiders said four hours of wrangling turned into a battle between the Commonwealth’s major powers, including India, Canada and the UK, and its smaller states. All members’ votes are equal in the “family of nations”.
The narrow victory revealed how divisive the Dominican-born official has become and how little confidence nearly half the Commonwealth states have in her ability to re-energise a bloc that they fear is in danger of sliding into irrelevance.
Johnson led calls for Scotland, 66, to leave after one term for allegedly failing to provide a focus for the organisation and being an ineffective and divisive leader. Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada decided in 2020 to cut support to the Commonwealth secretariat temporarily when Scotland faced allegations of cronyism and lavish redecoration of her grace and favour Mayfair apartment.
Supporters claimed she had been confident of victory even when accused this week by the Commonwealth’s board of governors of withholding a report on financing in an “affront” to its authority. Allies accused No 10 of running a vendetta against her because she refused to “do the UK’s bidding”.
Johnson Smith was forced to deny reports that she would be a stooge for Westminster. She thanked the countries who voted for her and offered “sincere congratulations” to Scotland.
Johnson tried to play down his disappointment at the result, telling journalists: “It’s a good day for democracy. I work well with Baroness Scotland, have done for a very long time, since I became foreign secretary, and I look forward to working with her for the next couple of years. We’ll be doing everything we can simultaneously to help strengthen the Commonwealth secretariat and really deliver value for Commonwealth members.”
President Hichilema of Zambia told The Times he was “thrilled” at the outcome, crediting Scotland’s intervention for getting him and others freed from jail when he was in opposition. “Her actions then defused a very tense period in our country for which Zambia is gratefu,” he said.
Scotland said it was “deeply humbling” to be reappointed for a further two years. “To continue to serve our family of nations is a true honour and a privilege and I will do so to the best of my ability. We will face the world’s challenge with unity and purpose,” she said.
Sue Onslow, of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, had warned that Britain’s energetic support for Johnson Smith could work against her.
“Commonwealth countries are very sensitive to any appearance that Britain is trying to play too dominant a role because of the historic colonial relationship,” she said.
She added that Scotland’s win marked “a successful pushback by a seasoned politician against her detractors”.