Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Portia backs Phillips as successor

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM

In the immediate wake of the 2008 Phillips challenge for leadership of the People's National Party (PNP), it could hardly be said that Portia and Peter had become bosom buddies.

When the PNP demolished the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in December 2011 and handed the Golding-Holness administration a one-term loss, although not much warmth had been added to the thaw, there was a big job ahead for the new PNP administration in renegotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the previous JLP Government had failed to solve its start-stop relationship with the international lending agency.

In the new prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, appointing Dr Peter Phillips to head the finance ministry, an awesome and even scary amount of responsibility was placed on him, not the least of which was sitting down with the IMF representatives to hammer out a new plan under the extended fund facility.

All of that is now water under the bridge, as Jamaica navigated the rough waters under an IMF regime where bottles of bitter medicine were swallowed by the Jamaican people, all in an effort to keep the nation afloat and giving us a shot of promoting a growth agenda.

The man and woman at street level may have misunderstood much of what had been taking place, but the raw fact is, the nation was not in a position to go forward without the IMF. The first order of business was that steady hand in the finance ministry and, whether he was popular or not, Phillips was simply tailor-made for his role.

Jamaican voters made their choice on February 25 and elected the JLP to run our affairs of national governance. Even the most hardened of JLP zealots celebrating after the narrow win would admit in hushed tones that Peter Phillips' performance was not just necessary, but commendable. Outwardly, they have to toe the party line.

In recent weeks, two items have occupied the airwaves - the jitters surrounding the final rollout of the JLP's promise of no income taxes for those earning $1.5 million or less; and leadership of the PNP.

There are those who are of the firm view that having lost an election where the PNP was widely expected to win, the leader of the party must accept that had the PNP won, many would have been singing her praises. On the other hand, the exact opposite happened there, for it ought to come as no surprise that some have been calling for her to give up the leadership.

"The lady (Portia) has decided that the best person to lead the party now is Peter Phillips. Her concern is that the party be left in good hands and not be overrun by any interloper. Peter is not just the best person for the job; he is the most experienced and qualified of all possible claimants," said a PNP insider to me last Thursday.

 

GETTING PETER AND

 

 

PORTIA TOGETHER

 

"Listen," I said. "I know that it had to take some amount of skilful legwork and mediation to get them to agree on one agenda. How did it happen?"

"A certain man with strong PNP roots, from a St Ann constituency, sensed that both were very concerned about what was happening after the election loss, but even with some amount of bruised egos, he saw that common purpose operating and he eventually got them together. It was something that was overdue."

"I am trying to understand it fully. Is Portia stepping down or what?" I asked.

"Well, it is not that simple. Both of them know that I am speaking with you, but they do not want to go on record yet. I believe that a lot depends on the local government elections. If the PNP loses, as you say is more than likely to happen, especially if the JLP works the no-tax plan, I believe there could be an announcement by the leader."

"An announcement? You mean something like what P.J. made in 2006 when he said that Portia was not just the hope, but the only hope? When he did that just before the internal contest in 2006, he all but guaranteed that the PNP delegates would vote for Portia."

"I don't know exactly what was in P.J.'s head at the time, but all I can tell you is that Portia has decided to heal whatever thaw as you call it that was existing between herself and Peter. She is doing it for the overall good of the party, and as you know, there is no one in the PNP more equipped and qualified for the top job than Peter Phillips."

I decided to ask him about what some may see as a stark contrast between the youthfulness of Holness in the JLP and Phillips, who is a genuine veteran. "The new buzzword is youth. What about the younger second-tier leaders in the PNP? So far, Peter Bunting has not ruled out an active and real challenge. Will this not make Phillips look kind of like a blast from the past?"

"I believe that when the PNP delegates and the MPs/caretakers do a critical examination of who is more qualified and capable, they will see Phillips as the person who commands the most respect at all levels in the PNP. Many believe that he is the one who single-handedly kept the nation's fiscal books in order. It is that order that has been presented to the JLP, which will allow them to begin a growth agenda."

 

WILL PORTIA STEP

 

 

ASIDE IN SEPTEMBER?

 

Whether local government elections are held or not, July is the month of nomination for PNP leadership aspirants for the contest in September.

I am certain that at the very least, three people may now be exploring the idea of placing their names on that list. The trick is, no one wants to challenge the leader and lose, because that dent in the ego is likely to settle in for a long time. And a consequence, not exactly unintended, is that it will create enemies going forward.

Among the 'young' names surfacing, especially on social media, are Julian Robinson, Lisa Hanna, Phillip Paulwell and, of course, Peter Bunting. As I stated, no one wants to challenge and lose, therefore, the various exploratory committees will have to carefully and critically examine the political direction on the ground.

As July approaches, those operating under the radar will have to surface and all camps will know about the others.

Those trying to depose the leader will not just risk losing, but the possible, if not likely, consequence of winning is that a tag of displacing Portia will be attached to them and may come back to haunt them at a future general election.

The extent to which Portia moves from being an unyielding leader not prepared to accept challenges to being a respected icon is something that all leadership aspirants must struggle with.

If challenges do come, giving Peter Phillips her blessings and announcing that she will not be making herself available would be an option at the top of the agenda. If she believes that the party is likely to be hijacked by one or two interlopers, she may decide to stay and fight.

And if she does, she will win.

- Mark Wignall is a political analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.