Sat | Jul 4, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | It’s the knees that give out

Published:Sunday | May 31, 2020 | 12:35 AM

I know Peter Phillips to be an exceptionally decent man with expansive ideas about and for Jamaica. So when he assumed financial direction of the nation in 2012, despite the extraordinarily difficult circumstances, I expected great things. He delivered. The previous administration had left the country in a historic shambles. The social fabric was frayed, the economy was bust, our international reputation was mud, and almost every national institution was being dragged through the muck and mire of the Dudus extradition cesspit.

It was Phillips who, more than anyone, rescued the country back then. Through an alchemy of incredibly hard work, negotiating legerdemain, deep knowledge of government, ability to marshal the confidence of big players in finance, consensus building, and raw determination, he led the Cabinet in pulling the country back from the brink. I’m not sure if there’s a historical equivalent, at least not one the political border guards would be comfortable with: Seaga after 1980?

Now you would think, given that recent history, the political party he leads would be like the herds in Lion King, bowing in unison on the grasslands of the savannah. Not so. Yesterday, news broke that 15 Opposition MPs have written to him “requesting a meeting”.

For obvious reasons I’ve been remembering when Oliver Clarke initially extended the invitation to throw around opinions on this broadsheet. In retrospect, my answer should have been “No thanks; I actually like having friends.”

Anyway, this already famous letter notes that “there has not been a meeting between you and the parliamentary group since we have received news of your illness”. The illness referred to is Phillips’ surprising cancer diagnosis, the resultant surgery, and the course of chemotherapy announced publicly.

Let’s persist with the Lion King theme for a moment, because we are in the heart of the political jungle here. You can bet that what they intend to discuss is something more than whether Jamaica needs to upgrade its naval capacity by adding three canoes. This will inevitably become about which lion is to rule the Pride and patrol the ancestral Pride Lands.

Pro tip: if you get a formal invitation to meet at a venue where you are de ownah fi de yard, then somebody else is thinking that dem is actually de ownah fe de yard. Which is why, presumably, there were 15 signatures attached to the otherwise bland request to assemble. There being 29 opposition MPs, if those 15 signatures represent a cohesive and “sticky” block of parliamentary votes, the constitutional requirements for changing Opposition leader are a few formalities within reach.

Phillips has two seemingly intractable problems, either of which might be theoretically resolvable on its own, but which taken together are near insurmountable. The polling of the political party has been pretty dismal, and now, this illness.

MISTAKEN HIS MERITS

In March of last year, The Gleaner reported on its own polling with a headline reading: ‘PNP Facing Uphill Task, Poll Shows’. The leader was trailing the party, which itself was trailing the governing JLP: “Phillips got a 51% negative rating, with 37% of respondents assessing his performance as average and 12% giving him a positive rating.”

Naturally, I think the public is seriously mistaken about the man’s merits. But, as I’m reminded daily, they don’t listen to me. And note that these numbers predate the Portland East by-election loss, the internal leadership contest where Phillips survived by the slenderest margin, and before a cancer diagnosis. More recent polling this year was more of the same. So it’s not a blip or anomaly.

Since then the current Government has stalled and gone into reverse on the economy and continued to crash and burn on crime and security issues. On top of all that, the COVID-19 pandemic has immiserated large portions of the populace, and its devastation is just warming up.

But has any of that changed the fortunes of the Opposition? And is it generally felt that the Opposition is projecting a coherent voice, is being heard, or is being considered as a viable alternative Government?

As of now it appears that they are unable to generate enough energy and excitement to defeat the Holness-led JLP any time soon.

Still, as I said, though dismaying, low polling isn’t in and of itself disqualifying. These things change, and a resourceful leader like Phillips will be biding his time, adjusting his sails, and awaiting that next gust of wind to fill them.

Which is why the illness highlighted by the MPs comes into such sharp relief. For it calls into question whether Phillips will have – can have – enough nimbleness and focus to make the necessary adjustments to those sails.

It was evident in the run-up to the 2016 general election that Portia was not exactly game-fit, but to mention it was like committing one of those Soviet-era thoughtcrimes, risking a show-trial and execution. But what the PNP refused to acknowledge the public, in its own wise remorseless and unforgiving way, had no problem discerning.

Generally speaking, a 70-year-old undergoing chemotherapy would find it challenging to lead the charge in a local government division, hard in a constituency, and quite difficult across 63 constituencies. If there’s anyone who can do it, that would be Phillips. But as they say in the boxing world, when you have a great fighter it’s not the spirit that gives out; it’s the knees.

ANOTHER PROBLEM

Here’s another problem. By all the best forecasts, COVID-19 is going nowhere any time soon. Even if it’s beaten back somewhat, it is expected to make a resurgence in various waves up until a suitable vaccination is found. Someone on chemotherapy is, by definition, immunodeficient, and will have to exercise great caution in their public outings and interactions.

In our highly personalised and retail politics people want to see, touch, and interact with their leader. No army of surrogates or skilful role-delegation will substitute for the physical absence of the leader.

Had it not been for COVID-19, my feeling is that a general election would have been concluded already this year. With a projected 12 to 14 per cent downturn in the economy on the horizon and the world of pain and discontent lurking in those numbers, the current administration has little else on its mind.

It’s mythic – and tragic – how the ring of power can slip from the hand of a man through no fault of his own. Truthfully, when I saw the letter I thought, just like what Beenie Man said when the Babylon dem came to lock down the clash between him and Bounty Killer: “Can we not do dis right now?” But the clock is ticking and the electoral cycle is remorseless. It has pushed 15 MPs to signal their dissatisfaction and, therefore, their understandable intention to spin Fortune’s unpredictable wheel once more.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com