Letters & Opinion

The Backbencher! Part 1: Roles of Ex-Prime Ministers

Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Do former prime ministers have any role in politics? Should they continue to contest elections after losing office? If so, what should be expected of them after being re-elected as parliamentarians? Should they be invited to join a Cabinet of Ministers, to lead ‘the party’ and country again, or simply ride into retirement?

The responses to each question will vary according to who’s asking and answering, but all arise in Saint Lucia, in one form or another, almost every time former Prime Minister Dr Kenny D. Anthony takes the floor in the parliament or appears at a public function.

But before examining Dr Anthony’s case, let’s look at today’s ex-UK Prime Ministers: John Major, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Interestingly, immediately after their resignations, both John Major (1997) and Theresa May (2018) left Downing Street and went directly to watch cricket matches at Lords.

Tony Blair has receded into his distant past, Gordon Brown remains largely silent, and Major emerges from retirement (from time to time) to comment on major issues affecting the Conservative (Tory) Party he once led for more than one term, while Mrs. May still sits on the back benches at Westminster.

Madam Truss remains invisible, but Boris Johnson keeps reminding Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (whose resignation as Chancellor in Johnson’s Cabinet sparked the events that eventually led to the latter’s unwilling ‘asta la vista’ resignation) that he’s not about to disappear beyond any horizon.

By-and-large, except for Johnson, former British Prime Ministers have been satisfied to sit on the back benches – the back rows of seats in the House of Commons built for hundreds of MPs – and given their party full support, in office and out.

Some ex-Prime Ministers in Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member-states have likewise elected to fade gracefully into active political retirement, not seeking re-election after having been replaced in the leadership, like Barbados’ Erskine Sandiford, who became his country’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In Guyana’s case, former Prime Minister and President Samuel Hinds is now the Cooperative Republic’s Ambassador to the United States.

Many Caribbean ex-leaders have repeatedly sought and won re-election, including Jamaica’s Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, Barbados’ Errol Barrow and Owen Arthur, Trinidad & Tobago’s Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Guyana’s Desmond Hoyte.

Former PMs have also returned to haunt, even challenge, successor party leaders (like Barbados’ Owen Arthur versus Mia Mottley), while in others give or gave full support to successors and served in their Cabinets (like veteran St. Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Denzil Douglas today).

Saint Lucia today has Dr Anthony, Allen Chastanet, Stephenson King, Dr Vaughan Lewis and Mickey Pilgrim as ex-Prime Ministers.

After serving as Interim Prime Minister between 1982 and 1983, Pilgrim handed over to Sir John Compton after that year’s early General Elections.

Dr Lewis led the UWP into the 1997 General Elections as Prime Minister and Sir John Compton, who tactically didn’t contest in 1997 and 2001, returned to office in 2006, dying in office the following year.

Stephenson King acted and was later appointed UWP Leader and Prime Minister in 2007, but was forced out of the driver’s seat after Allen Chastanet was later elected Party Leader (though not an elected MP) and publicly called the shots while King was PM.

King led the UWP into an 11-6 loss to the SLP in 2011 and became Opposition Leader but was eventually relegated to the end-of-the-line in the party’s parliamentary line-up after Chastanet defeated him as Party Leader; and Chastanet later acquired the candidacy for the Micoud South seat, won it, led the UWP into victory and became PM in 2016.

As a former PM and Party Leader, King was isolated and relegated background status during Chastanet’s five-year tenure, his main ministerial functions usurped by another less-experienced minister more in-favour with the then prime minister.

After leading the UWP into its second worst (15-2) defeat by the SLP under current PM Pierre in 2021 (Dr Anthony led the party into its 16-1 victory in 1997) Chastanet elected to stay-on as UWP Leader and Opposition Leader.

Ex-PM King had a choice to make for the 2021 elections and decided to resign from the UWP and contest as an Independent, again winning his Castries North seat, but this time joining the SLP-led Cabinet (alongside fellow formerly sidelined UWP Cabinet Minister and Castries Central MP Richard Frederick).

Chastanet is the only ex-PM on the Opposition side in parliament, while the Government side features Dr Anthony and Senior Minister King, with PM Pierre (and Dr Lewis and Pilgrim also available if needed).

King is Senior Minister in Pierre’s Cabinet, with Frederick also a minister, but Dr Anthony hasn’t accepted any ministry and has only been seen attending monthly parliamentary meetings, while tending to his Vieux Fort South constituency.

Not in Saint Lucia (and the Caribbean) though, where Prime Ministers and Party Leaders tend to be popular enough to win their seats even when the party loses an election, and none is required to resign for leading a party into an electoral loss.

Nor will anyone quarrel if a leader of a losing party decides to continue to lead, his or her only assurance being to be eventually challenged from within before the next General Elections.

Which brings the focus to Dr Anthony, who doesn’t hold any position in government and has only served as MP for Vieux Fort South, a seat he’s won six consecutive times – a proud record shared with PM Pierre, who’s also won his Castries East seat as many times.

But this ex-prime minister hasn’t had it easy since immediately stepping-down as Political Leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and passing the baton to his long-serving Deputy Leader and Deputy Prime Minister (Pierre) on the same night of the party’s 2016 electoral defeat under his leadership.

(NEXT WEEK Part 2: Back-benching from the Frontline!)

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