Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Rift rocks PNP! - Party throws support behind Phillips as Bunting backers ignite political dynamite

Published:Sunday | May 31, 2020 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
PNP President Dr Peter Phillips (right) welcomes Manchester Central Member of Parliament Peter Bunting onstage at the 81st annual Conference at the National Arena last September.

GOVERNOR GENERAL Sir Patrick Allen could be asked to exercise his authority under Section 80 (5) of the Jamaican Constitution and appoint a new Opposition leader if Manchester Central Member of Parliament Peter Bunting and his supporters head to King’s House with 15 letters indicating no confidence in Dr Peter Phillips.

The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition in Jamaica is the person who has the majority support and confidence of the political party which is not in government. A letter signed by 15 of the 29 Opposition members of parliament was sent to Phillips last week, complaining about the absence of meetings and demanding same, after flames of no confidence in Phillips have been fanning since 2018.

Yesterday, the People’s National Party (PNP) told The Sunday Gleaner that Phillips was not about to roll over and play dead.

“The leadership top brass stand strong in their support of party President Dr Peter Phillips and his leadership of the 81-year-old organisation ... ,” the party said in a statement sent to our newsroom after Sunday Gleaner queries.

The statement, under the signatures of Chairman Fitz Jackson and General Secretary Julian Robinson, said regular meetings were always scheduled, but were unfortunately delayed on account of COVID -19 protocols prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 persons.

“ ... The party is focused on its preparation for the upcoming general elections and will not be distracted by any attempt to divide the party in its mission ... ,” it continued.

The statement said the letter is viewed as a request and that “ ... With the relaxing of these rules as of June 1, the party can return to its usual schedule, while observing the need for social distancing and other protocols ... .”

However, the party did not respond to Sunday Gleaner questions on possible sanctions Bunting and his supporters could face amid attempts to heal the rift in the PNP and the way forward.

Pre-emptive strike

Our news team was told yesterday that the letter was a pre-emptive strike against Phillips’ team, which has been holding “secret meetings with his supporters to agree on an interim Opposition leader as he goes through cancer treatment”.

“Don’t be fooled. Phillips has met and is meeting with people who support him. He is just not meeting with everybody,” said the source.

Section 80 (5) of the Jamaican Constitution gives the governor general the right to exercise discretion on the matter in selecting the Opposition leader.

“If, in the judgement of the governor general, the leader of the Opposition no longer is able to command the support of a majority of those members of the House of Representatives who do not support the Government, or, as the case may be, the support of the largest single group of such members who are prepared to support one leader, the governor general, acting in his discretion, shall revoke the appointment of the leader of the Opposition,” reads the Constitution.

It would be the first time that a governor general would be asked to make such a decision, but not the first occasion in which such a move was contemplated, stated a senior PNP source.

“It was the intervention of former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson in 2005, who prevented Phillips and his allies from heading to King’s House shortly after Portia [Simpson Miller] became PNP president,” The Sunday Gleaner was told.

The source claimed that Phillips’ supporters then had prepared a letter which said that Simpson Miller enjoyed neither the support nor confidence of the majority of the members of parliament.

The two Peters appear to be on a collision course with real political fears inside the PNP that Bunting – who has made no secret of his ambition to become prime minister – has authority in numbers and could head to King’s House on Tuesday.

“Should the governor general act, which is not outside of his powers, he could/would be considered an activist GG. And he is not known to be one. My guess is that if he is approached, he will either call Bunting to a meeting, or write to say that he has exercised his discretion not to interfere,” said the source.

An academic who said she was “watching the development” described Bunting as “desperate”.

“His ambition is well known, but for him to make this move now, there must be a feeling of desperation. Something must have triggered it. But remember what happened in Shakespeare’s Macbeth?” she said yesterday.

Still a Simpson Miller ally said on Friday that “Bunting has been desperate a long time. The morning after the general election loss in 2016, him and Mark Golding was calling people, asking when Portia was going to step down. She has been burnt by the two Peters.”

In a terse response later Saturday by text message, Bunting said, “Not going to be part of any hatchet job on myself. Gu duh yuh ting.”

Phillips could find himself on the receiving end of the same political sword he waged against Simpson Miller 15 years ago as “Bunting has played the identical game, but respected party people are exercising physical distancing”, said the source.

According to him, the elder statesman, Patterson, “may be asked yet again to settle the rage”.

This “rage”, he said, was never truly settled since Simpson Miller defeated Phillips, Dr Karl Blythe and Dr Omar Davies to become president in February 2005. Phillips replaced Simpson Miller by acclamation in 2017 and last year fought off a challenge by Bunting with a 76-vote margin.

Robinson said while the pandemic has affected party activities, everything was not on pause as the executive will meet Monday night. The more than 50-member group will ratify the recommendations for three remaining caretakers to complete its slate of candidates for the upcoming general election due in less than a year.

The 15 MPs who signed the letter sent to Phillips

Peter Bunting

Mark Golding

Dayton Campbell

Michael Stewart

Luther Buchanan

Ian Hayles

Colin Fagan

Derrick Kellier

Ronald Thwaites

Robert Pickersgill

Angela Brown-Burke

Fenton Ferguson

Noel Arscott

Richard Azan

Evon Redman