‘Not being Adrian Delia’ is not enough

Bernard Grech, on the other hand… well, the most we can realistically say about him, at this stage, is that he is ‘not Adrian Delia’

It may be too early to tell… but I’m beginning to detect a slight change in the political weather.

A couple of days ago, for instance, The Times published a poll indicating that support for the Labour government had ‘plummeted’ – a word that was later changed to ‘dropped’ – by 10 percentage points.

Not that it’s any of my business, of course… but personally, I would have stuck with the original headline. After all, 10% of the Labour Party’s 2017 performance translates into roughly 17,000 votes… which is already around half the 35,280 votes that separated the two major parties at the last election.

And given that Labour appears to have lost that support in just one month – and that, all other things remaining equal, the next election is still two whole years away… suddenly, all the old political ‘certainties’ no longer look all that very ‘certain’.

Besides: even taking into account the 5% margin of error, that poll seems to confirm a perception I had already formed from several other indications – not least, the public outcry after government’s woeful mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis -  that cracks are beginning to appear in the Labour Party’s previously impregnable stranglehold on power in this country.

Naturally, it remains debatable whether this will be enough to turn the tide completely by 2022… but speaking only for myself, I will not be placing any bets on Labour winning its third consecutive election on the trot: no matter how ‘inevitable’ this may have seemed, until only a few weeks ago.

If nothing else, my experience has so far taught me that even the most unthinkable changes can materialize when least expected; and, more to the point… when change comes, it tends to come both suddenly, and very emphatically.

Having said this, though: the same poll also indicates that – for the umpteenth time – the Nationalist Party has not only failed to capitalize on Labour’s misfortunes… but has actually managed to lose more support of its own: dropping from 15% last month, to 13% today.

There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons for this: for one thing, it mirrors all Adrian Delia’s previous failures to make any inroads whatsoever, at any point at all in his entire three-year stint as PN leader (no, not even when the previous Labour government came crashing down in flames seven months ago).

And in any case, it is just slightly difficult to place trust in a party that is so openly (and brutally) at war with itself… especially at a time when we don’t even know for certain who will actually lead the PN into the next election.

Nonetheless, the question remains valid.  Would a Bernard Grech triumph at the PN leadership contest be enough to turn that party’s fortunes around?  If not in time to actually win the next election… at least, to convincingly narrow the gap?

Well, his supporters certainly seem to think so. This is, in fact, the main message of the unofficial Bernard Grech campaign to date - as emblemized by a slogan currently doing the rounds on social media: ‘Flimkien Naghmlu il-Partit Nazzjonalista Mill-Gdid Rebbieh’ [‘Together, we can make the PN a winner again’]

But beyond the accompanying image of Bernard Grech striking his most ‘Eddie Fenech Adami-like’ pose – not, mind you, that he even needs to try very hard… on looks alone, he could very easily be a fifth Fenech Adami son, alongside John, Beppe, Michael, Raphael and Luigi – we have so far not been given any indication of how he intends to actually make good on that promise.

Not by his most ardent supporters… and not even, it must be said, by Bernard Grech himself.

And this is doubly unusual, because it has now been more than three weeks since Grech officially threw his hat into the ring: plenty of time, I would have thought, for an aspirant to the PN leadership – not to mention a possible future prime minister – to lay down his own political vision: not just for the benefit of the party members who will be choosing between him and Adrian Delia in a few weeks’ time… but also for the electorate that will later have to choose between the new PN leader, and Labour’s Robert Abela.

Yet we have heard nothing of the kind since then… and it was clearly not for lack of media opportunity, either.

Bernard Grech has, in fact, given several interviews to the press over the last three weeks – including to this newspaper – and yet I remain none the wiser as to who he really is… and, more pertinently, what sort of ‘change’ he plans to bring to the table.

For instance: asked to account for the Nationalist Party’s steady decline in electoral fortunes since 2004, he merely reiterated what we all already knew anyway: i.e., that ’The Nationalist Party stopped having a vision when Malta joined the EU’.

“There was a moment when the PN stopped having a vision in the long term and for the far future. From the moment we entered the EU, it was like we reached our aim, and then from that day forward we lost our point of reference…”

Erm… sorry, but I seem to remember Franco Debono making exactly the same point, long, long ago, on ‘Bondiplus’… a programme which hasn’t actually existed since 2013.

But apart from being a political cliché that has already been in circulation for around 17 years anyway – it is (let’s face it) about as helpful as a doctor who correctly diagnoses your ailment… but then fails to actually prescribe a cure.

What sort of remedy, then, is Bernard Grech offering, that will enable the PN to ride the crest of this unexpected wave that seems to be shifting Malta’s entire political landscape as we speak?

To my mind – and, it must be said, based only on what he himself has so far hinted, and what his supporters seem to expect – there are only two possible answers to that question right now:

1) the fact that he is ‘not Adrian Delia’, and;

2) that he is very clearly modelling his campaign, as well as his own public persona, on Eddie Fenech Adami.

I need hardly add that both those strategies are in themselves severely (but severely) flawed.

OK, I’ll keep the first part brief, because it’s a point I’ve already made in previous articles. While we can all agree that Adrian Delia has been manifestly useless when it came to delivering on his main campaign promise of 2017 – which just happens to be the same promise Bernard Grech is making today (see above slogan for further details) – the fact remains that the PN’s problems were not originally of Delia’s own making.

So replacing Delia at the helm, as an end in itself, cannot realistically be expected to solve them (any more than replacing a Formula One driver can possibly guarantee victory in a race… when the problem was really the car).

As for the second point, however… well, on one level I can certainly understand the advantages of reminding Nationalists about the time when their party was truly a ‘winner’: under someone who can only be described – at least, in purely electoral terms – ad the most extraordinarily successful political leader this country has ever seen.

But Eddie Fenech Adami was also very much a man of his own era. And no matter how successful in the short and long term, his political vision remains firmly anchored in the distant 1970s: an age when the entire world was divided along a (now largely defunct) left-right axis; and when (at the risk of over-simplification) the challenges faced by the country were in no way comparable to those of today.

So to emulate that vision now, more than 30 years after Eddie first became party leader in 1977, is not merely ‘repetitive’ or ‘unoriginal’… it is also highly regressive.

Much more significantly, however: the same reminder also forces us to confront the overwhelming difference between Eddie Fenech Adami and every leader (real or potential) who ever came after him.

For better or worse, Eddie really did lay down a vision of his own, for both party and country. His ambition to join the EU gave Malta a much-needed sense of political direction; and while we can argue interminably about whether it was the right direction, at the time… or about all his other policies, throughout his 27-year stint as PN leader… there was never any real doubt as to who Eddie Fenech Adami was, and what he stood for.

Bernard Grech, on the other hand… well, the most we can realistically say about him, at this stage, is that he is ‘not Adrian Delia’.

And that, on its own, is hardly going to ‘make the PN a winner again’.