Patrick's Plan

The defeat of the People’s National Movement in the 2010 election is being debated feverishly, and no doubt will continue to be discussed in the context of the poor judgement of its political leader, Patrick Manning, but what if this is exactly what he hoped to achieve?

It’s crazy, on the surface of it, to think through this year’s elections from that perspective, but let’s make some assumptions.
  • Assumption one: Patrick Manning is not crazy, nor is he so ego-obsessed that he would risk his party’s position in power for no good reason.
  • Assumption two: The political leader and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago is an eminently tempting target, far more so than a guy from San Fernando, for people holding secrets or willing to leverage privileged information.
  • Assumption three: The election was called suddenly, on the cusp of a no-confidence notion that was destined to fail, but daily, it seemed, more and more information about the political leader’s dealings were coming to light.

Very few of us can think like a Prime Minister. You have to sit in the chair, face the sycophants and admirers, the tireless opposition, the never ending hands outstretched for their piece of the national pie.
Every accusation that the Prime Minister faced up to April 2010 was better handled by a Manning in office than one on the opposition benches, but what of the things we cannot possibly know?

Was there more to be revealed about the Guanapo church? Was there something buried in the Udecott files or information that a skittish Calder Hart might be threatening to reveal in exchange for witness immunity?
Or was there something else that we haven’t considered or paid attention to?

Is the case slowly making its way through the investigative process of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions at the request of Justice Rajendra Narine, a matter regarding an affidavit signed by Yasin Abu Bakr, more than the ravings of the Jamaat leader?
Is there evidence to support Bakr’s allegation that he was promised state land in return for support in the 2002 election?

If there was an elephant in the political room, one sitting so quietly that it was unnoticed by everyone except the person facing the pointy end of an ivory tusk, what would that person do?
Would they suddenly and inexplicably step down from a position of power or create an elaborate scenario to remove themselves from a place in which they were so terrifyingly vulnerable?

Let’s examine what Patrick Manning did over the five weeks of campaigning.
He called the election just as Kamla Persad-Bissessar had emerged triumphant from the UNC’s internal elections. He didn’t wait for the newly appointed Opposition Leader to get used to the power she now wielded, to make a mistake that might prejudice her in the eyes of other opposition forces.

Instead, he dissolved Parliament just before a no-confidence motion being piloted by the new Opposition Leader was scheduled for tabling in Parliament.
By all indicators and the prior history of such motions, this was an effort destined to be more symbolic than effective, but the decision to dissolve Parliament before it could even be heard put sharper teeth into an effort that was likely to carry all the force of a gummy bear bite.

The new Opposition Leader suddenly had remarkable credibility, earned for something she never actually had a chance to do, and it would come as no surprise that the other Opposition parties, sensing the blood in the water, joined up to be part of what would become a feeding frenzy on May 24.

Then he kicked Penelope Beckles to the curb in the screening process. Not just once, but twice. Beckles is one of the few people in the PNM who commands respect across the entire political spectrum. Even her most bitter political enemies will buss a kiss on her cheek when they see her socially, and it’s not even clear that she has bitter political enemies.

In the PNM of 2010, Penelope Beckles was an anomaly. Respected, capable and regarded as a senior member of the party among the political toddlers that the Prime Minister had raddled his Cabinet with, Patrick Manning decided that at the outset of a short political campaign, it would be a good idea to snub a strong party loyalist who enjoyed real resonance with the public.

Then, on the campaign trail, he could neither bring himself to publicly accommodate and acknowledge Keith Rowley nor was any real effort made to incorporate the widely respected whistle-blower into the context of his party’s efforts to be reelected. Rowley would be neither asset nor nemesis, a prince awaiting the fall of the king.
Rowley was shunted off to the hinterlands of his personal campaign for Diego Martin West and trotted out in token gestures at the major rallies.

So that’s two key party assets neutralised.
Who ruled the podium on the campaign trail? Marlene McDonald, who proceeded to gleefully play to the peanut gallery, doused the punters with an unrelenting geyser of personal venom, vulgar rhetoric and crude personal attacks.
This display reached its nadir when the Port of Spain South MP waved, for public consumption, a clumsy Internet concoction of her face with the nightie clad body of a, shall we say, big girl. Patrick Manning and his wife, Hazel were pictured laughing gleefully at this revelation.

Until this moment, I hadn’t seen the image, since I largely don’t get e-mails from the kind of folks who would circulate that kind of document, so I’d have to say that it was a dicey bit of reverse PR.
McDonald served up tasty dishes for the PNM faithful, as did a surprisingly virulent Christine Kangaloo, but these women weren’t winning any new supporters with this outpouring of vitriol and were turning off a lot of folks who were casually interested in the party.

I found the entire display to be a stunning stroke of misjudgment, so absolutely out of sync with the prevailing mood of the electorate and so prolonged that it seemed gleefully suicidal.
Not content with the affront to civilised sensibilities these women provided virtually every night at major rallies on the campaign trail, the Prime Minister must have decided that his campaign for retirement needed some thick brown icing on an already startlingly rancid cake.

In a campaign in which it was clear that Ministries, defined in the constitution as institutions of public service and not political instruments, had suddenly decided that May was a good time to report on their good works in lush, full colour advertisements, the Prime Minister instructed that the government time guaranteed under the licences granted to television broadcasters would be pressed into service to air not one, but two politically focused live broadcasts.

The first was a regrettable (at least for the journalists involved) question and answer panel in which Patrick Manning ducked and weaved through minor queries with a gracious smile. The second transmission, the very next night, was a “state of the nation” address delivered for the first time, before a very appreciative crowd.

In the wake of the election defeat, Patrick Manning cut a curious profile. There was the acceptance of the defeat, the willingness to acknowledge his responsibility, and then there was the surreal and half-hearted struggle to hold onto power.
Like a man feeling his fingernails tearing as he holds on to the rusty edge of a girder on a bridge span, the wind pulling entreatingly at his pants legs, this was a man who said he was willing to “hold on” until a new leader was elected.

Was this shock? The startled first response of a man about to have his life turned upside down? Or was it the final act in an elaborate piece of choreography that began with the quick draw snatch of an election date from his back pocket and the sharp snap of a starter’s pistol that began a process that only had one conclusion in the former Prime Minister’s mind?

Only one man can answer these questions, but don’t expect him to address them anytime soon.

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