Editorial | Tearing scabs from the PNP’s sore
LAST SEPTEMBER, with the wounds in the People’s National Party (PNP) still raw and in the early stages of haemostasis after Peter Bunting’s challenge for the presidency of the party, we warned that the sores wouldn’t be easily healed. Much would depend on the posture of the challenger although the greater burden of the recovery effort would rest with Dr Peter Phillips, the party’s leader, who retained his job by a narrow margin.
Last week, Mr Bunting, and his supporters in the PNP’s parliamentary group, in a seemingly deliberate action, ripped at the party’s scabs, which will leave reinfected lesions despite the expected declarations of debridement and the application of threadbare, unsterilised bandages. That should all happen by this weekend.
That, at least, is how we expect the matter to play out for the time being. For despite the implied threat of their action, it is unlikely that the 15 of the PNP’s 29 members of Parliament who wrote to Dr Phillips demanding a meeting to discuss the future of the PNP and his leadership would go so far as to invoke Section 85 (5) of the Constitution by telling the governor general that their party president no longer has their support as leader of the Opposition.
Such a move would trigger a crisis in the PNP as deep and profound, and, perhaps, worse than the 1952 expulsion of the Four Hs (Ken Hill, Frank Hill, Richard Hart, and Arthur Henry), key organisers and labour leaders who, ostensibly, were operating a Marxist cell in the democratic socialist party. It required the genius of the party’s founder Norman Manley to hold the PNP together.
So on reflection, the factions will cobble together a truce, perhaps claim that the intent of the letter was misunderstood, and declare that the party is united behind Dr Phillips to contest the imminent general election. The deeper issues will not be resolved.
SURPRISED AT TURN OF EVENTS
Despite our observation last September of the untidiness, and often unforgiving nature, of the politics of democracy, we are surprised at the recent turn of events. After all, a general election is constitutionally due by next February although it would probably have been held already but for the intrusion of the coronavirus crisis. It will now likely take place before year end, probably in October. The expectation, therefore, is that the political parties would attempt to carefully manage their disagreements.
Further, although Dr Phillips prevailed by only 76 votes, it has been merely seven months since he was reaffirmed as the PNP’s president. The recency of his mandate, in normal circumstances, might have afforded a party leader some breathing space except that six weeks ago, when Dr Phillips announced that he had undergone an operation for stage three colon cancer, which his doctors say is treatable, there was, in some factions of the PNP, not sympathy, but questions about how quickly he would step down as well as urgings that he immediately install an interim leader.
Now, the majority of the PNP’s parliamentary team, despite couching their letter in the language of empathy, complain about the absence of a meeting of the caucus to discuss a range of issues, including their wish to personally express sympathy for and solidarity with their party leader. Dr Phillips has said that normal party operating structures have been affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
Unsurprisingly, the move by the members of Parliament is widely seen as a shot across the bow of the party leader and obviously interpreted as such by Dr Phillips. That he responded directly to Mr Bunting, supposedly because he didn’t recognise some of the signatures on the letter, is quite pointed. It suggests that he perceives this is as a case of the hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob.
Whatever else may have been their motive, the experienced politicians who signed that letter ought to have known that it would have been interpreted as a restatement of their lack of confidence in Dr Phillips and that a missive of the kind wouldn’t be secret. If they didn’t, we question their judgement. In either event, the PNP, to put it no higher than that, has a problem.
The question this poses for the party, and which it has to resolve in short order before it hits the campaign trail, is whether voters can, in the circumstance, trust it with the Government, which, some people might claim, is the precise question the letter writers intended to pose.