Robert Abela may have more to lose than Bernard Grech…

Suddenly, then, it appears as though Robert Abela may actually have a lot more to lose, in the coming election, than either Bernard Grech, or (even less) the Nationalist Party as a whole

Is it just me, or has a hint of panic starting creeping into the Prime Minister’s tone of voice?

OK, OK… ‘panic’ might not be the right word. ‘Insecurity’ may be nearer the mark. Nonetheless, Robert Abela’s recent public appearances do seem to suggest – the way I see it, at any rate – that the ‘smug, square-jawed confidence’ he continually exudes, is increasingly becoming more… artificial. Contrived. As though he is trying to put on a brave face, to mask his own growing anxiety…

Consider, for instance, his speech at a Labour Party rally last Sunday. Most newspapers ran with the following detail as their main headline: “Robert Abela warns that ‘opposing forces will try to destroy the Labour movement’”…

… even if, on the surface, it was pretty meaningless thing for Robert Abela to even say.

Indeed, you can file it under the same sort of ‘self-evident tautology’ that we have almost come to expect from the Prime Minister: like, every time he deflects questions about the election date, with that infuriating line: ‘It will over by June…’

Erm… gee, thanks, Mr Prime Minister. Yes, of course the election will be ‘over by June’… because that’s when your own electoral mandate expires. (Duh!)

And by precisely the same token… yes, of course those ‘opposing forces’ will ‘try to destroy the Labour movement’. That is, after all, what the word ‘opposition’ actually means, in the local electoral context. (Leaving aside that it is precisely what the Labour party had done to its own ‘opposing forces’, in both 2013 and 2017…)

And yet – unlike Abela’s oft-repeated election quip – there is still some significance to that (otherwise pointless) statement…. which is probably why newspapers gave it so much prominence in the first place.

The way I see it: it is not so much that Robert Abela was ‘warning’ his supporters of imminent opposition attacks - something which (let’s face it) they didn’t really need to be ‘warned’ about – but rather, that he is genuinely worried that such attacks may indeed prove damaging: if not to the Labour Party’s chances of actually winning the next election… then to himself, personally.

And there is even evidence that this may already be happening. According to our polls last Sunday, the Labour government seems to have lost 10,000 votes, in the space of less than two months. More worryingly still for the Prime Minister: his own trust rating has slipped - for the second consecutive month – to 45.1%... as opposed to the Labour Party’s current standing, of 54.3%.

Now: it may not be a precise ‘like-with-like’ comparison… but those figures do suggest that the Labour Party leader is now conspicuously LESS popular than his own party (and given the PL’s recent history… that’s quite a reversal of fortune, in and of itself).

All the same, however: as Labour’s online defenders tirelessly point out… the same survey also suggests that Labour’s electoral lead remains virtually unassailable, by any realistic standard. In practice, the projected electoral margin has merely reverted to what it was in June 2017: i.e., the largest electoral majority the country had ever seen, until that point…

… so in theory, at least: even this latest ‘dip-in-the-polls’ should be of little concern, to a party that is clearly poised for yet another, thumping historic victory.

And yet… Abela himself is behaving as though he is, in fact, genuinely concerned. And this emerges not just from his unnecessary ‘warning’ last Sunday: but also from a couple of much more salient quotes from the same speech.

“We understand that some people want to send us a message. Speak to us. Tell us how we can help you more. We can continue reforming this country by listening to people…”

And if that was not enough to drive the message home… here’s the clincher:

“Under the PN governments, people had come to expect bigger bills, whereas under Labour they can expect bigger cheques…”

Now: coming, as this does, just three days after the same Robert Abela had stood on a podium, and almost literally showered the entire nation with… MONEY! Big, fat cheques, of E100-200 apiece, for ‘workers, students, pensioners, the unemployed…’ (in other words, absolutely everyone)…

… and also coming, as it turns out, on the same day as a poll revealing (and I quote): ‘the Prime Minister’s comfortable lead is reduced to a hairline among pensioners’ [and by slightly less among the ‘tertiary-educated’]…

…  well, that gesture starts looking like slightly more than just the blatant ‘vote-buying exercise’, that we all know it really was. No, it also starts coming across as a case of…  ‘pleading’, almost. As though Robert Abela is so utterly scared of the prospect of losing any more votes – even if he can’t possibly lose enough to cost him the election – that he is resorting to the same tactics, traditionally employed by leaders facing certain annihilation at the polls.

Much as I hate to make the comparison: he is starting to sound a little like Lawrence Gonzi before the 2013 election (indeed, the first of the above two quotes could easily have been lifted from one of Gonzi’s last ‘Taht It-Tinda’ meetings)… with the difference, of course, that the former Nationalist Prime Minister knew only too well that he was heading towards disaster.

Abela, on the other hand, is cruising towards an easy victory. Why, then, does he sound so… well… desperate?

To answer that question, we have to do what most people in this country seem perfectly incapable of doing… and look at those poll results from Robert Abela’s own perspective, instead of our own. And for what it’s worth… this is the view that suddenly opens up before us, as I see it.

Robert Abela, I would say, has good cause to feel ‘insecure’. This is, after all, his first election as Labour Party leader… and he must surely be aware (even because our latest poll confirms it, in no uncertain terms) that Labour’s ‘historically-unassailable majority’ cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be attributed to anything he himself has said or done, in his two years as party leader.

To be fair, Abela can certainly be credited with retaining the same margin of victory as Joseph Muscat – and like it or not, that is the only active comparison to be made here – but then again, that only means that he hasn’t yet ‘lost’, what his predecessor had achieved.

Either way, Robert Abela must be acutely aware that he himself is NOT the architect of his party’s current stranglehold on power… and if you follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, you will arrive at a point where every single Labour vote LESS than the 36,000 majority of 2017, will be a Labour vote that was ‘lost’ by Abela himself.

In other words, a victory of anything less than the same 36,000 margin, will no doubt be interpreted - by himself, and others – as a ‘personal defeat for Robert Abela’ (What can I say? Life can be unfair at times…)

And with surveys suggesting that the gap has already been narrowed, in just two months, to precisely that all-important target… Abela cannot realistically afford to lose even a single vote more than he has ‘lost’ already.

Not only that: but from his own perspective – as opposed to that of his own party – nothing less than an improvement over the 2017 result can realistically be interpreted as a ‘victory’, either.

Effectively, then, Robert Abela is now under pressure – not least, from himself – to improve on the 2017 result. And – paradoxical though this may seem – that is actually a much harder target for Robert Abela to meet, than the one set for himself by Opposition leader Bernard Grech.

Because there’s another dimension to all this. It seems to have gone curiously unnoticed, in the meantime… but a couple of weeks ago, our sister paper Illum carried a report under the remarkable headline:

“Grech lil uffiċjali tal-PN: ‘Jekk id-distakk imqar jonqos sa 30,000 vot jiena nibqa’ Kap’” [Grech to PN officials: ‘If the gap is reduced to 30,000 votes, I will remain leader’].

Now: there are, admittedly, a couple of problems with that bald assertion. For starters, the ‘30,000’ target appears to be an entirely arbitrary (and highly questionable) electoral benchmark, chosen for himself by Bernard Grech. Besides, the PN’s statute still demands that a leadership election must take place, regardless of the result... and as far as I can see, there is no guarantee – far from it, in fact – that the PN’s Electoral commission will share Bernard Grech’s opinion, as to what margin of defeat would be acceptable for him to stay on.

BUT… while it is certainly a bluff, on Grech’s part… it remains a bluff that cannot realistically be called, until after the election results are out. Effectively, this means that Grech’s self-appointed electoral target still stands; and will continue standing, until after the election itself is done and dusted.

Much more pertinently, however: it is an eminently ‘achievable’ target, too. Indeed, our own polls indicate that Grech may already be almost two-thirds of the way there…

Suddenly, then, it appears as though Robert Abela may actually have a lot more to lose, in the coming election, than either Bernard Grech, or (even less) the Nationalist Party as a whole.

And… well… if you ask me, it’s starting to show…