Why is Busuttil still Opposition leader?

Rephrase: why hasn't Simon Busuttil taken on board the message that 'the Nationalist Party does not want him as a leader'

It is Busuttil, and not any other MP, who should surrender his seat to Delia... because that's what the Nationalist Party itself has just voted for
It is Busuttil, and not any other MP, who should surrender his seat to Delia... because that's what the Nationalist Party itself has just voted for

I’ll give you a small hint. “Because Adrian Delia doesn’t have a seat in Parliament” is not the correct answer. In fact, it isn’t even relevant to the question.

So let me ask it again: this time I’ll rephrase slightly. Why hasn’t Simon Busuttil taken on board the message – delivered to him loud and clear on multiple occasions – that the Nationalist Party does not want him as leader... and that, following at least six consecutive (and cumulatively incremental) electoral defeats, he has absolutely no business to be assuming command of the Parliamentary Opposition at this particular moment in time? No, not even in a ‘caretaker capacity’?

It really is quite bizarre, you know. How many elections do you have to actually lose before finally conceding defeat? Let’s see now: with Simon Busuttil, you could start with the March 2013 election. Yes, yes, I am aware he wasn’t leader at the time. But he did author the PN manifesto that went on to be rejected outright by an unprecedented majority; and he was also the PN’s supposed ‘trump card’, flown in all the way from Brussels to somehow change the course of PN history.

In practice, however, Busuttil’s dramatic 11th-hour entry into the fray did not even make a dent in the polls. And it is debatable in the extreme whether his subsequent campaign debate performances (for, as newly appointed deputy leader, Busuttil often fronted the PN in public events) actually contributed to the sheer extent of the defeat.

But that was just the beginning. Having failed spectacularly in his declared mission to turn things around, Busuttil went on to lose every other election he contested since. Local councils, European parliament, the June 2017 general election.... already, we’re up to four.

Earlier I mentioned ‘six defeats’. Well, the last two came during the recent PN leadership campaign, in which Busuttil – undeterred by his own tragic record when it comes to successful campaigning – tried to influence the outcome: even going so far as to ‘urge’ Adrian Delia to withdraw his candidacy, and to publicly ‘appeal’ to the kunsilliera and tesserati to ‘vote in the best interests of the party’.

Put those two together, and you get a pretty clear idea of Busuttil’s hugely unsubtle message to the PN electors: ‘DON’T VOTE FOR DELIA!’ Yet in two separate rounds, the party councillors and paid-up members returned the clean opposite verdict. Short of picking Simon Busuttil up by the scruff of the neck, and physically booting him headlong out of the Stamperija... I can’t think of a more direct and unequivocal way of telling someone: ‘BARRA, BARRA, BARRA!’

But oh look: Simon Busuttil is still ‘GEWWA, GEWWA, GEWWA’. And he is still putting spokes in the wheels of the leader who was elected – fairly, squarely, and above all, democratically – to replace him.

In all honesty, I think this is unprecedented in Maltese politics. Even Dom Mintoff (hardly one to accept defeat lightly) eventually bowed out of politics when he knew his time was up. Alfred Sant admittedly took a while to reach the same conclusion: but when he did eventually resign, his resignation – as both party and Opposition leader – was peremptory and final.

Oddly enough, the man whom Busuttil replaced in 2013 – Lawrence Gonzi – had no difficulty doing what his successor has flatly refused to do since last June. Having lost an election by a (hitherto) record majority, Gonzi did the honourable thing and retired from politics altogether. He immediately resigned both his leadership positions... and he also vacated his seat in parliament, never to openly interfere in the political process again.

Why is it so difficult for Busuttil to do the same? His defeat was greater than Gonzi’s; and his personal/political responsibility for that defeat was also greater. Much greater, in fact. Lawrence Gonzi had the disadvantage of competing against a younger and more energetic politician; Simon Busuttil and Joseph Muscat are of the same generation, and their political careers were forged in much the same furnace. Gonzi had a political record to defend after almost 10 (mostly difficult) years as prime minister; Busuttil had a clean sheet. 

More to the point: Busuttil also had the benefit of an election defeat analysis report which he completely ignored. Unlike Gonzi, who could only appreciate the reasons for his defeat through hindsight, Busuttil had it all spelt out to him from long beforehand. Too much negativity; too much reliance on hate blogs, etc. Yet he pressed on regardless with the same, failed strategies and tactics... and not only did he lose, but he even managed to enlarge on Gonzi’s electoral humiliation. 

And just look at him now: three months after the full impact of his failure was made manifest, Simon Busuttil had the temerity to ‘hand over the keys of responsibility’ to Adrian Delia in a bogus (and completely tasteless) ‘ceremony’... while simultaneously refusing to shoulder his own responsibility for that catastrophic result, and just get the hell out of there.

The situation vaguely reminds me of that classic ‘rom-com’ motif: the spurned lover who simply refuses to accept the fact that he has, in fact, been rejected.  No matter how many times, or in how many emphatic and unequivocal ways, the exasperated object of his doomed affection tries to spell out the word ‘NO’... the answer somehow always becomes a ‘YES’ in that person’s imagination.

Even in a romantic comedy, however, the humour that arises from that scenario is underscored by a sense of pathos and latent tension. On one level, it is simply sad to see someone grappling so unsuccessfully with rejection. On another, it is also ominous and perturbing... because we all know that, beyond the fictitious realm of comedy, such situations can (and very often do) end in tragedy.

This case, too, looks set to end in tears. For now, Busuttil’s dogged insistence on occupying a role to which he is simply not entitled – Opposition leader – threatens to literally tear the Nationalist Party to pieces.  

A lot of people out there... who are (or were, until two weeks ago) Nationalists – seem to be taking a lot of perverse pleasure in seeing the new PN leader humiliated on a daily basis. What they might not realise is that Delia’s discomfort is also the PN’s discomfort. Leaders come and leaders go (unless they’re named Simon Busuttil: in which case, apparently, you get stuck with them forever); but the party is supposed to keep chugging along in the background regardless. 

Well, that is not happening right now. The PN’s new leader cannot take up the twin role of Opposition leader... partly for lack of any foresight of his own, true; but also because the elected officials of the Nationalist Party have simply refused to bow to the democratic decision taken by the same party’s electors, and accept Adrian Delia as their leader. In other words, the machine of Parliamentary Opposition has been deliberately sabotaged, and is now ground to a halt... with dangerously destabilising effects on both the PN and the country as a whole. 

This brings us to the answer (or at least part of it) to that question in the headline. When Busuttil handed in his resignation last June, he was quoted as saying: “[I] will remain in place until the process is finished so that there will not be a vacuum in the party’s leadership.” He also said he would remain Opposition Leader “until the new PN leader assumes the role.”

I didn’t notice the significance at the time; but I do now. Busuttil was fully aware that Delia would be facing this problem today... and he clearly intended to exploit it to the full, for his own advantage.

But that, to be fair, is an internal battle Delia must now fight for himself. I have absolutely no interest in seeing him succeed, either. This is, after all, someone who feels he can dispense with all ‘non-Catholic’, ‘non-Latin’ (whatever that means) Maltese citizens with a simple wave of the hand; who bases his own party’s identity on ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’... and in so doing slams the door shut in the face of any Maltese citizen who might happen to be an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew or a Protestant.

No, the problem I see with Busuttil’s declaration is that – whatever the law might have to say in the matter – it is politically unsound. Busuttil has no moral authority (and certainly no mandate) to lay down his own terms of ‘when’ and ‘how’ to vacate the role of Opposition leader.  If Delia cannot automatically assume the role, it does not follow Simon Busuttil can simply arrogate unto himself ‘carte blanche’ to occupy it forever. 

There are other Nationalist MPs who can fill the post in a caretaker capacity... going by the book, the likeliest would be the PN’s deputy leader for Parliamentary Affairs. As for Busuttil himself: relinquishing that role does not spell an automatic end to his career as a politician. There is still the European Parliament, where his personal record is of a considerably different ilk. And there will always remain the possibility of a political comeback in future.

But not in the present; and certainly not under these particular circumstances. Otherwise, there simply won’t be a Nationalist Party to eventually come back to.

The longer Simon Busuttil takes to realise this... and for the PN as a whole to realise that it is only wounding itself with this continued charade... the more irreversible the damage will be. Busuttil should do what Gonzi did before him: retire from Parliamentary politics, and give the rightful leader of the Nationalist party the space he needs to do what has to be done. 

In a nutshell: it is Simon Busuttil, and not any other MP, who should surrender his seat to Adrian Delia. Not because I say so, naturally. But because that’s what the Nationalist Party itself has just voted for.

More in Blogs