Mark Wignall | What now for Peter Phillips?
After suffering a defeat in a by-election where it had promised a win, one gets the sense that whatever traction the People's National Party (PNP) could have gained, had there been a victory instead, is slowly slipping away from the party.
The real loser in last Monday's South East St Mary by election is Peter Phillips, leader of the PNP and Opposition leader. The moment is preparing him for stark choices. Does he accept the by-election defeat as a mere blip on the way to securing better political advantage for his party and his leadership, or will he be convinced that maybe the time is right to hand over leadership to younger and more politically energised persons in the PNP?
He doesn't have much time to play with even though it is still fairly recent he was given PNP leadership. Andrew Holness has sniffed political blood and Peter Phillips may have already accepted that he is getting a whopping, politically and socially from a fired-up, raring-to-go Holness.
Prior to the election, Phillips had contended that the election would be a referendum on Holness. Without digging too deeply into Peter's premise, if we accept it, then it would mean that the people have spoken. And they have chosen Holness and rejected Phillips.
STARVED FOR STATE RESOURCES
Peter Phillips well knows that rural areas, when compared to constituencies like, say, a few of those in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, are starved for state resources and infrastructural development. For this reason, voters in South East St Mary were always going to respond to local, constituency-based matters and political messages.
Did voters in the constituency see the increase in the national murder rate and develop fears as the rest of us? I am certain they did, but those concerns did not show up in the polls last Monday. If it did, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) would lose elections in every constituency.
It is useful to remember that Jamaica rose to the top in the global murder rate in 2005, a time when the PNP held power and Dr Peter Phillips was the 'Mister Fix It' in PJ's Cabinet and also, for a time, national security minister.
Phillips made a notable error in reading the voting factors in the constituency, and for that there are already PNP factions re-forming and coming together to plan for what they see as his woefully uninspiring leadership and his ultimate ouster from the leadership post.
Personally, I am not yet impressed with Peter Bunting and his sort of half-willed approach in his commitment to leadership in the PNP. At the same time, where Phillip Paulwell has that natural PNP vigour and political vitality well suited for the PNP, he has probably amassed more than a few negatives at the national level.
For those reasons, there is no great majority of people in this country thinking too strongly that the PNP, its leadership and its hiccups are pressing factors now.
Although I have not seen documentary evidence of it, I am willing to buy into the JLP's poll findings that the PNP's Peter Phillips is lagging the JLP's Holness by 15 per cent points in terms of national approval.
"I could not believe it," said a PNP member of parliament to me on Tuesday morning. "There Phillips was in the constituency with his car door open, him sitting in the seat while the supporters crowded around. While he was doing this, Holness was walking barefooted with people in the rural parish. Mark, as long as Peter is there, we will never win another election."
When I brought up the very obvious negative factors that would begin to haunt Peter Phillips, a JLP minister and master of the silent, political game told me last Tuesday, "That is why we in the JLP will work most hard to ensure that Phillips remain as PNP leader. He is our best guarantee of continued JLP wins."
Much of politics is like being caught up in a time warp. In the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, just about all of my friends in the PNP were telling me the same thing about Eddie Seaga and the JLP.
The fun and the political stress are now over. The real work starts again with Holness in the driver's seat.