Beppe Fenech Adami has been among the fiercest critics to date of the so-called 'gang of three' - i.e., MPs Franco Debono, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett, all of whom have somehow defied the party line in recent parliamentary votes.
From his almost identical position as a PN backbencher, Fenech Adami was among those who advocated that the PN adopt a hard line with the rebels... so it must be galling for him to see his government enter a 'coalition' (if such it can be called) with one of those same MPs, in what many describe as a desperate bid to cling to power at all costs.
My first question for him is precisely about the latest development. Is he satisfied with the resulting compromise?
Fenech Adami acknowledges that the scenario is not ideal, but he challenges the broad view that government has lost its majority.
"The situation as I see it is that a government MP has quit the parliamentary group... but he has declared he will continue to support government. So to date government still commands a majority in the House."
But does it really? As I recall, what Pullicino Orlando actually said he would support government only in so far as it implements its electoral programme... and let's face it: of the bills currently awaiting approval after the summer recess is over, hardly any were envisaged in the PN's electoral programme.
So how can Fenech Adami (or indeed anyone in government today) take Pullicino Orlando's continued support for granted... when it is a qualified support to begin with; and in any case, we are talking about the same Pullicino Orlando who very recently led the Prime Minisetr to believe he would vote against an Oppsoition motion, when in fact he went on to do the opposite...?
"I know Jeffrey. and I certainly cannot vouch for him. But he has declared that he will support government, and I have no reason to think otherwise."
Ok, assuming that Pullicino Orlando will indeed play ball with Gonzi for the rest of the term: he also said he expects to be 'consulted' on major decisions. Doesn't this also mean that Gonzi now needs to ask for Pullicino Orlando's permission to pass legislation?
Fench Adami shakes his head. "No, I don't see it that way. Asking permission is one thing; consulting your parliamentary group is another."
But Pullicino Orlando is not part of the parliamentary group. Fenech Adami agrees: "Yes, and he expects to be consulted even though he is not a parliamentary group member. I see nothing wrong with a Prime Minister consulting his supporting MPs... this is in fact normal, it happens all the time."
On the subject of normality, I am reminded of a comment by Beppe's father Eddie Fenech Adami back in 1981, when had boycotted Parliament on the grounds that 'the country was in a state of abnormality'.
Admittedly there is no comparison between the political situation now and then... but many now argue that the country is today also 'in a state of abnormality', albeit for different reasons. Beppe Fenech Adami waves away such considerations.
"When I look around me I don't see an abnormal country," he replies. "For some time now I have been conducting house visits, and my impression is that most people are less interested in the situation than the media suggest. People want to get on with their lives; they're not concerned about internal political issues.... Most people are not following the situation closely at all. They're more likely to be at the beach..."
That may well be the case, but the fact remains that government has now been unable to legislate since last December. Doesn't this suggest that something is very wrong somewhere (regardless of whether most people see it that way or not)?
"But we do not measure government's performance only by legislation. In fact this is an obsession - a mistaken obsession - that government's job is to pass laws all the time. But it isn't. Government's job is to create and distribute wealth; to ensure that people have job opportunities... and on these issues the government has delivered. In fact the more government features in the news, the worse the situation. The feeling out there is that we are performing well on the important matters, and that's what concerns people really..."
Still, the polls (including, I am told, internal PN polls) do not look very healthy for the party in government. So if people feel the PN is performing well... why does this not translate into a boost in electoral support?
Fenech Adami shrugs, pointing out in return that it is still too early to tell. But what is his own prognostic for the coming election?
"It's doable," he replies assertively. "I've lived through elections, and I have a sense of how they work. As we get closer to the election date, the gap between Labour and PN will narrow..."
Here he surprises me with an unexpected comparison. "In fact I would go as far as to say that we are better off today than we were before the last election. If you ask me, winning was much more difficult last time than this time..."
And yet I seem to remember the polls pointing towards a PN victory before March 2008... though Fenech Adami reminds me that this apparent advantage only materialized in the last weeks before the election date.
In the preceding months, everything had pointed towards a Labour victory. Then as now, he argues, time proved to be an ally to the PN.
"The more time passes, the more people will come round to understanding that the country will be better off under a Natioanlist administration," he asserts with confidence. "Also, the more time Labour will have to bungle things up. Because let's face it: they are a bunch of amateurs, and this is the real reason why people turn to the PN come election time. Recent history shows this clearly: people who vote Labour when the Nationalists are in power, do so hoping things will remain the same. But when people vote PN under a Labour government, they do so hoping things will change..."
Well, the PN occasionally bungles things up, too. The present government had four seats awarded by means of a constitutional mechanism, after failing to secure a national majority in 2008. Four and a half years later, the resulting one-seat majority has translated into a deficit whereby the PN now occupies less than 50% of the seats... not because of any successful maneuvering by the Opposition, but almost exclusively through a series of own goals and unforced errors. Isn't that a bit of a bungle in itself?
Fenech Adami is unimpressed by the comparison. "The situation was and still is that you had three MPs who crossed the red line. That has caused the sensation of a crisis, true, but you can't compare it to Labour's track record of making a mess of things..."
Here he invites me to consider a few of Muscat's less inspiring proposals as PM-in-waiting. "So he comes back from a trip to Dubai and - because he saw Palm City and was impressed - he suddenly suggests a project of land reclamation. How serious is that?"
Well... about as serious as Lawrenbce Gonzi, who made an almost identical suggestion in the form of 'artificial islands': an idea which was floated (if you'll excuse the pun) in his first term of office. But Fenech Adami has already progressed to another example.
"How about the 'youth guarantee' idea?" he continues, with reference to a recent PL proposal which came in for blistering attacks. "Not only does it turn out to be a blanket policy of the European Socialists anyway... so nothing new there at all... but the proposed benchmarks are actually lower than the situation as it already is in Malta. This means that is we were to apply those benchmarks, we would have taken a step backwards..."
On this point we can agree that Labour does have a habit of making rather daft suggestions which play neatly into the hands of the Nationalists before every election. But still, the resulting impression is that the PN relies more on the mistakes of its rivals than on its own qualities to win elections. And besides: at the same time few can really deny that the sort of shenanigans we have witnessed of late are more reminiscent of Labour than what we traditionally associate with the PN.
For reasons of family history alone, Fenech Adami is perhaps better positioned than most to appreciate this. After all, his father had led the party through much darker times than these. And between 1987 and 1992, he did so at the helm of a one-seat majority. How does his son now reconcile the PN of the past with that of today?
"There were differences," he acknowledges. "Having clearly defined goals is one thing: the fight for democracy, to join Europe... these were factors that made a difference. And yes, there is also such a thing as a crop of politicians...."
Still, he returns to the same mantra that, even when not up to 100% fighting fitness, the PN remains the more reliable option by far. This, he argues, is why the Prime Minister is right not to rush headlong into an election.
"Joseph Muscat wants an election yesterday. And he's right to want that, by the way... he knows that Labour can only lose support between now and the election. He is very much aware of that. And don't forget that the pressure is not only on Gonzi or on the PN. There is pressure on Joseph Muscat, too. Let me put it this way: if the Labour Party loses the next election it would be a tragedy for Labour. If the PN loses... it will not."
This line of talk is beginning to remind me of Alfred Sant's famous 'power of incumbency' remark after the last election. One reason why the party in government tends to increase its support in the last few weeks of its term is that - unlike the opposition - it is in a position to make offers to the electorate: to buy votes with favours, etc. Is this the sort of thing he has in mind?
"No, that's not what I meant. It's more a case that the more time passes, the more government projects will be completed...and these things make a difference to popular perceptions."
Still, some of these projects are themselves controversial - one in particular is often singled out as a blot on Gonzi's entire judgement as Prime Minister. I refer to the new Parliament on the site formerly known as Freedom Square... which has its supporters, granted, but has also been criticized to scorn even in Nationalist circles...
"The parliament project as a stand-alone... no, I don't think that would make much of a difference. But the City Gate project as a whole? Yes, definitely. And there are other projects, too: to improve the road networks, etc."
Turning briefly to the PN's ongoing issues with Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, and I can't help but note there has been a curious reversal of roles in the past four years. In 2008, Pullicino Orlando came under ferocious attack over the Mistra affair by Alfred Sant... and the PN's response was to defend him tooth and nail.
Four years later, we saw the PN attacking Pullicino Orlando over the precise same issue... with the Labour Party now claiming that the contract had been leaked by someone within the PN itself. So: was the PN lying in 2008, when it closed ranks around its beleaguered candidate?
"Absolutely not," he replies without hesitation. "The whole issue back in 2008 was that, until the very end, JPO was lying about the existence of a contract. He had told the party that no such contract existed... and the party believed him. This has been confirmed separately by Joe Saliba, Austin Gatt and Gordon Pisani... and I believe those three, not Pullicino Orlando's version today."
But if the contract was originally leaked to Labour by the PN, then surely the party also knew that he was lying at the time. And yet it defended him anyway...
Fenech Adami shrugs. "That's what Labour is saying, but I am unaware that it is true..."
Either way, the wheel has nonetheless come full circle. The PN had attacked Sant furiously in 2008 over his claims regarding Pullicino Orlando and his designs for Mistra. Are we to understand that the PN now acknowledges that Sant was all along right?
"Sant's claims at the time went beyond the existence of a lease agreement. He was also alleging corruption, undue influience with MEPA for the issue of permits. Yet the people who were investigated were all acquitted on all charges. So no, clearly Sant was not right on these claims..."
Fenech Adami also refutes the widespread view that the Mistra saga had itself overturned the PN's ailing fortunes, securing a victory at the polls against he run of the play.
"That is simply not borne out by the facts. The election results show this clearly: the PN gained nothing in the way of Labour votes because of the issue; if anything it was the other way round: some PN voters voted Labour because of Mistra. So it is a fallacy to say that Mistra won the PN the 2008 election...'
Coming back to Fenech Adami's view that losing the election would not be a 'tragedy' for the PN... I have heard much the same comment from PN supporters, and some of them take the same concept one step further: claiming that the party may actually stand to gain by losing the next election.
The theory goes something like this: an election would act as the equivalent of a 'sieve' to filter out the troublesome MPs, resulting in a stronger and more unified parliamentary group. At the same time, a defeat at the polls would prompt a very likely leadership change - and I suppose it says something about the present climate within the PN, that some Nationalists seem to see this as a positive thing for the PN...
Fenech Adami is however dismissive of this view. "I refuse to accept the idea that as a party we should aspire to lose... or that it would be better to go into Opposition. I am aware that there is an argument to this effect, but I don't buy it myself. And I can assure you that PN supporters out there want us to win."
On the subject of leadership changes, there is also a rumour doing the rounds that Beppe Fenech Adami may be jockeying for position on the front line. Franco Debono recently hinted at a tandem between Fenech Adami and Austin Gatt, ahead of what is likely to be a post-Gonzi war of succession.
Does Beppe Fenech Adami himself have any such leadership aspirations?
"Absolutely not," comes the emphatic reply.