Revenge of JPO: former MP takes no prisoners in memoirs

A book that goes well with the suntan lotion: some skin is going to get scorched in Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s fiery memoirs

Cool and composed after voting for the Labour motion of censure against Richard Cachia Caruana, then Malta’s permanent representative to the EU. After that came his divorce Bill and the ground beneath Lawrence Gonzi’s feet shook
Cool and composed after voting for the Labour motion of censure against Richard Cachia Caruana, then Malta’s permanent representative to the EU. After that came his divorce Bill and the ground beneath Lawrence Gonzi’s feet shook

If politics can be war, then Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is a battle-scarred survivor who emerged from the nadir of his political life with guns blazing, taking down all his adversaries. Here he is once again, years after his last political foray, with some literary gunpowder: a memoir of his political career, and it packs quite the punch.

There is no doubt that JPO’s excessive sense of personality, perhaps a lack of regret, will hit readers in the face. His candour, at times ruthless, reveals a man comfortable in his own skin, but all to ready to take apart those who slighted him. And while he is forthcoming in setting the record straight on more than one aspect of his personal life, he is unrepentant about ‘Mistragate’, the scandal that butchered his environmental credentials.

It’s quite the chipper read, never bogged down in excessive detail (Mistra’s wrongdoing per se gets skimmed over...) but rich enough to wrap up the chapters that define his life so far. His trials and tribulations are narrated through accounts about the people that marked his life, because each chapter is actually named after a person: Eddie (Fenech Adami), Marlene (Farrugia), Lawrence (Gonzi), Alfred Sant, Richard Cachia Caruana and Daphne Caruana Galizia. It makes for a remorseless kiss-and-tell, and quite an insight into the extroverted MP. Gonzi’s shrill voice on the phone telling him off over his private member’s bill on the Polidano cement factory... Daphne shopping RCC as the man who orchestrated a press onslaught against him after 2008... all these JPO anecdotes have the timbre of gregariousness that would befit a live narration, with a couple of drams to boot.

But – as his memories of that fateful 2008 election scandal reveal – Pullicino Orlando recalls a few sordid histories as well. It was then the election forever remembered as the one Labour lost, by just 1,500 votes. Their secret weapon had been that JPO, Nationalist MP of promise, had tried to influence the Malta Tourism Authority’s opinion on a management plan for the Mistra Bay, but also on a prospective planning permit for an open-air disco by the tenant on JPO’s own land there.

It was a sensational take-down of JPO, now revealed to have been on the cusp of a lucrative contract for a disco in an ecologically sensitive area. But the PN – specifically its strategy guru (and “megalomaniac”, “intolerable bully”) Richard Cachia Caruana – along with JPO’s acquiescence, managed to defuse the offensive. JPO’s aggressive fightback became the PN’s antidote against Labour and he was actually elected on two districts.

So had they won because of the JPO ruse or had they narrowly lost because of him? Whatever they say, an instant campaign of discreditation against the ‘popular’ MP had to begin. Scorned by the PN leadership, he embarked on cold revenge. Regrets, he still has none.

Waterboy: hot tears and a ferocious display of indignation convinced PN voters JPO was for keeps
Waterboy: hot tears and a ferocious display of indignation convinced PN voters JPO was for keeps

His nemesis, Richard Cachia Caruana, is categorically identified as the man who instigated the post-election attacks on the MP. “A person closely linked to the Nationalist Party tried to plant drugs on me during a political event organised in a nightclub,” he says, a claim he took to Gonzi and the Commissioner of Police. JPO says it happened after having spoken out against a pet project championed by RCC: the underground museum at the St John’s Cathedral, which inspired a Labour motion that forced Gonzi’s hand in shelving the project.

“Fellow MPs congratulated me for torpedoing the white elephant project, Richard’s brainchild.” Weeks later, in a meeting with RCC, he would tell JPO that “he had taken my Mistra project away from me and I had taken the Co-Cathedral project away from him. We’re draw, he had declared – barefacedly. To me, this confirmed that he had a personal interest in the whole thing.”

Years later, the Wikileaks dump of US embassy cables revealed RCC’s shrewd ‘band-aid’ procedure for Malta to reactivate its membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace without any parliamentary scrutiny. Labour replied with a motion of censure, so RCC asked to meet up with JPO. The two chatted away at Jeffrey’s home, but as he was about to leave, RCC casually brought up the motion, sounding out JPO’s intentions due to the bad blood of the past.

“I was thinking to myself: are you f...ing serious? First of all, it was incorrect of him to ask about the voting intentions of a parliamentarian, in an obvious attempt at influence him in a matter in which he had a personal interest. Secondly, I was determined to express my disapproval of his proclivity to single-handedly take high-level national decisions.... last, but not least, did he think I was stupid enough to give him two weeks’ notice of my intentions, and subject myself to another dose of virulence from his buddies in the press, and extreme pressure from the party – in an attempt at cowing me into submission?”

JPO kept his cards to his chest. On the evening of the motion of censure, he declared his intention to vote in favour. “I clearly recall Lawrence turning his head towards me, in shock.” In the minutes before their vote, he and fellow MP Jesmond Mugliett (he abstained) took to the bar for a couple of stiff whiskeys (Franco Debono walked in, declaring he would have voted in favour had he known his intentions: “Codswallop!” JPO scoffs, saying Debono made a habit of boasting of his close relationship to RCC).

The PN won the 2008 election on the back of the Mistragate fight-back by 1,500 votes, which included hounding Alfred Sant and getting him to face JPO
The PN won the 2008 election on the back of the Mistragate fight-back by 1,500 votes, which included hounding Alfred Sant and getting him to face JPO

There’s more from this treasure trove of memories. JPO’s chapter on Daphne connects two phases of his life, his 1980s youth as an anti-Mintoffian hothead (JPO is of mixed political pedigree and goes as far as saying that “a lot of the political violence of the 80s was instigated by the Nationalist Party), and his later political career. Specifically, he insists on remembering Daphne as the lanky girl who swung a bollard at a truncheon-bearing officer of the dreaded SMU during one violent encounter of the times.

The two had met up in the 2008 Mistra scandal, when DCG ghost-wrote JPO’s ‘Street-corner gossip’ article published on The Times’ back page ahead of Sant’s big reveal. After the election, instead of jumping in with “hired guns” Ivan Camilleri, Andrew Borg Cardona and priest Joe Borg in attacks from the press, Daphne revealed to him that “Richard is behind this”. (MaltaToday too was independently-minded enough to take JPO apart, without any egging-on from RCC).

Here began JPO’s remorseless fightback.

Perhaps a final morceau from this moreish read? He extols Joseph Muscat, a “fundamentally decent” friend as one of the best prime ministers in history, despite his ignominous exit.

“Keith Schembri, Joseph’s right-hand man, brought the house down... I am convinced that Keith’s actions brought about Joseph’s resignation.”

Like his arch-nemesis RCC’s hold on Eddie Fenech Adami, Keith Schembri too had his prime minister collared, JPO goes on. But it was Schembri who ultimately validated Caruana Galizia’s writings, he says, “including the false and vindictive attacks on her adversaries.” As for Joseph? Jeffrey is still hoping that history absolves him: “He deserved better.”

‘With all due respect’ by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, is published by Choppy Books (€24.99 hardback, €12.99 paperback)