Has anyone ever had an easier ride than Bernard Grech?

There is, however, a striking difference. One candidate had to fight every step of the way; the other seems to be have been pre-emptively gifted victory on a silver platter, without having to lift even so much as a finger for it

Cast your minds back to early June 2017. As you may recall, the Labour Party had just won an election by the widest margin in history. For the same reason, the entire Nationalist Party leadership team had just announced its resignation… paving the way for a new leadership contest, to be held in September.

And for a while, everything seemed to be following the usual post-electoral script. The front-runner was, very predictably, veteran MP Chris Said; there was a respectable ‘token’ candidacy in the form of Alex Perici Calascione; and Frank Portelli occupied the traditional spot reserved for benign (but ultimately unelectable, and therefore non-threatening) ‘outsiders’… you know, just to keep up an external veneer of ‘competition’.

But there was no real doubt as to who was on course to win. Up until that point, everything seemed geared (not to say ‘rigged’) to virtually guarantee the same old result we had all more or less grown accustomed to: a simple ‘handing down of the baton’ from one generation to the next…. as had happened between Lawrence Gonzi and Simon Busuttil; and, earlier, between Gonzi and Eddie Fenech Adami.

Then, the unthinkable happened. A new, unexpected and totally unscripted candidate suddenly emerged out of nowhere to contend for the post – no prizes for guessing who – and almost immediately, there were flickers of excitement in various pockets of the PN grassroots.

Admittedly, it proved to be a woefully short-lived illusion… but back in those early days – i.e., before questions were duly raised about his personal finances; his alleged business associations with criminals; his family affairs; and (in a nutshell) his entire suitability for the post of PN leader, from top to bottom – Adrian Delia’s candidacy must have struck many Nationalists as a classic case of ‘just what the doctor ordered’.

Unlike those other token candidates, he seemed to represent a truly (and radically) different approach, for a demotivated and utterly demoralized party that had clearly run out of steam.

And being an outsider, he was unsullied by association with any former Nationalist administration; and therefore, entirely blameless for the previous two consecutive electoral defeats.

What candidate could be better positioned, then, to deliver the promised turnaround in the Nationalist Party’s fortunes… if not the only one on the ballot sheet who could actually start afresh, on a totally blank slate?

OK, let me hit the pause button for now. Like I said, this was three years ago; and an awful lot has happened since June 2017. Indeed, given the subsequent speed with which the same Delia fell from public grace since winning that contest… even I find it hard to concretely remember a time when those ‘flickers of excitement’ could palpably be felt.

And besides: just as some sections of the PN support-base clearly warmed to the Delia’s exterior affability, and the ‘man-of-the-people’ image he tried so hard to project at the time… there were others who reacted to him with instant suspicion (even before, it must be said, there was anything to be overtly suspicious about).

All the same, however: by now you will probably work out where I’m going with all this. With only a few alterations to some minor details here and there – for instance, the number of candidates contesting; or why the election is even taking place at all – pretty much everything I just wrote about Adrian Delia in June 2017 (except maybe the ‘instant suspicion’ part) is just as applicable to Bernard Grech today.

Like Delia three years ago, Grech was almost totally unknown to the general public when he surprised everyone (well: most people, anyway) by throwing his hat into the ring.

And the effect of this seemingly unscripted candidacy was likewise to enthuse and galvanise certain sections of the party grassroots… leading one of Grech’s many admirers to observe that: “he lit a flame of hope for a better, brighter and fairer future…”

So even before we get to the parts where both Adrian Delia and Bernard Grech saw a shift in their popular perceptions – both due to revelations of financial ‘carelessness’ which, albeit in different ways, and to different degrees, raise questions about their suitability as prospective Prime Ministers – we can already see glaring differences in the way these two otherwise similar candidates were treated from the very outset.

Let’s go back to that timeline, shall we? (Oh, and bear in mind that I won’t be getting as far as the revelations about Delia’s offshore bank account, or Grech’s more recent ‘history of unpaid taxes’. The basis of this comparison is limited only to how we initially viewed these candidates… not how we view them today.)

The first of many public objections to Adrian Delia came on June 29, when Daphne Caruana Galizia blogged the question: “How does Adrian Delia plan to be leader of the Opposition if he doesn’t have a seat in parliament?”

Daphne ended that blog-post with the line: “If I had the resources of a newsroom, my big story right now would be contacting each of the Nationalist MPs and asking them whether they are willing to give up their seat to Adrian Delia…”

And… what do you know? It was (perhaps unsurprisingly) prophetic, though Daphne herself didn’t live long enough to see it eventually come true. In the end it took Adrian Delia almost a month after the election – until October 16, as it happens – to “find the weakest Nationalist backbencher MP and persuade him to give up his seat”. But for months beforehand – ever since June 29, in fact – the entire country had been caught up in the ‘who’s-going-to-give-up-his-seat-for Adrian-Delia?’ guessing game.

Bernard Grech? Slightly different story. Like Delia before him, today’s ‘outsider’ contestant doesn’t have a seat in Parliament either. And yet, nobody ever raised it as a possible objection to his candidacy. As I recall, it was mentioned (very casually) in an early press interview… only for Grech to wave the matter aside, as a bridge to be crossed at the opportune moment.

When that moment came, Bernard Grech ended up with a choice of no fewer than three ‘weak’ sacrificial MPs, all ready and willing to fall on their own swords for his benefit… including, it must be said, one of Delia’s former allies.

And granted: this reflects well on Grech’s own campaign promise to be a ‘unifying force’ within the Nationalist Party (good luck with that, by the way… and I mean it sincerely).

But given that Delia had faced the exact same quandary, even before any of the more serious allegations that would later haunt him… you can’t help but feel that all the obstacles that had been carefully placed in Delia’s path, were just as carefully removed when it came to Grech running the same race.

And that, by the way, includes his status as an ‘outsider’ to the party structures.

Just a few days after the parliamentary seat blog-post, Daphne took another dig at Delia: this time concerning his lack of political experience; and the fact that “the last time he did anything for the Nationalist Party, he was 17. He is now 47.”

This, in turn, led to accusations of opportunism: along the lines that (according to Daphne Caruana Galizia, anyway) he wanted “to cool his heels for just five years before the ultimate prize of becoming prime minister after doing nothing in politics in his life.”

And… pause again.

Once more, we are confronted by a certain resemblance between the two scenarios; and yet, certain differences, too.

In stark contrast to Adrian Delia, Bernard Grech’s ‘newness’ to the political scene has not exactly been viewed as ‘threatening’ or ‘subversive’. On the contrary, it has been almost universally acknowledged as arguably his greatest selling-point: not least, by Bernard Grech himself.

In an interview last month, he was asked the question in no uncertain terms: “One of the arguments political analysts make is that Delia was not brought up in the party structures. You are the same in that respect. How are you different from Delia…?’

His answer? “I believe that, because at the moment in the crossroads that the PN is in today, the fact that I was not in the party structures […] I think that this is what is needed, and what can be the antidote for the present situation…”

The precise wording may be different, but… well, that is pretty much exactly the same pitch Adrian Delia himself had made, way back in early June 2017. It was enough for him to win the support of a majority of tesserati, at the time… and by the look of things, it may well prove to be enough for Bernard Grech to do the same today.

There is, however, a striking difference. One candidate had to fight every step of the way; the other seems to be have been pre-emptively gifted victory on a silver platter, without having to lift even so much as a finger for it.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that Bernard Grech will not prove perfectly capable of lighting that ‘flame of hope for a better, brighter future’… and even keeping it lit for many years to come.

But ‘fairer’? I’m not so sure…