Fearne on the frontline

It does look rather strange to see Chris Fearne as a guest of honour at the Christmas lunch hosted by Zaren Vassallo

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne

If there’s a big question on Malta-watchers and political observers, it is about Joseph Muscat’s decision to quit politics, and if so when. He has already stated on numerous occasions that he will not be running for a third general election, but nobody seems to be in a positon to answer the question of when he will be making that exit. Probably, not even Muscat himself knows the answer to that – especially when it seems most of his followers want him to stay on. Unlike people like Adrian Delia, of course, and also his deputy prime minister Chris Fearne, who has certainly fired up the engines on his own campaign.

The reason most people discuss Muscat’s exit is because they fear the “unknown” of a Labour landscape that is not under his control. Or, to be entirely truthful, they fear the known...

It is no foregone conclusion that health minister Chris Fearne, given the chance, would probably win a leadership contest hands down. But let us not forget that Labour delegates have always used their intuition and voted for the best candidate for the long term.

When in the past they had a choice between Lino Spiteri and Alfred Sant, they surprised everyone and went for Sant. It was a wise choice then: Spiteri had baggage from the 1980s and was not the pleasant and folksie columnist he was later made out to be through his Sunday Times column. The same applied in the choice between George Abela and Joseph Muscat. Abela was the party grandee and soft-spoken lawyer with experience, indeed the candidate feared the most by the PN… but the Labour delegates felt Abela had betrayed Alfred Sant by resigning before the 1998 election. So they went for Muscat.

So far Muscat has shown to be a conciliatory and pragmatist leader. He pushed Labour towards a neoliberal pole which however has been unflinchingly progressive in social outlook. A fitting heir to Blairite politics. He embraced some political ‘foes’ and turned them into allies, and opened the doors wide to the business community. Without the Panamagate saga and the death of a journalist, his would be an unsullied political curriculum vitae.

He outflanked his political adversaries, making their ascendancy next to impossible. Take Adrian Delia as an example. From a superficial assessment of his political posturing and his press statements, it is abundantly clear that he is weak on the technical aspects of any argument and depends too much on his oratory. He constantly fails to instil faith and trust.

Muscat on the other hand is always sure about his arguments, economic on off-the-cuff comments and always on key or apparently in full control… with the exception of some parliamentary occasions where he lost his cool.

Attempts to demonise Muscat have failed, because unlike many of his predecessors he does not waste time on malicious grudges as was the case in the time of Mintoff, Fenech Adami and Gonzi.

Which brings me to the boys and girls on the block who eye Muscat’s post (even though many say this is far too early a consideration) – clearly, one man has already drawn the battle lines and actively shown interest in the leadership post. He has unabashedly met with business magnates, dined with them, and asked them for their support. Needless to say, the funding of his campaign does not fall from the sky. Malta is a small place: and one businessman who attended one of these meetings, described the setting as “surreal”.

Chris Fearne may not yet have the charisma or vision of Joseph Muscat. And he also irritated some Labour delegates by being continuously bombarded with his campaigning. Delegates who spoke to me recounted the embarrassment of having been called to attend meetings and to talk of leadership plans: the high-handedness of FMS official Carmen Ciantar was noted by many delegates, who appreciate her drive but not her sincerity. Nothing wrong with this, of course.

But it does look rather strange to see him as a guest of honour at the Christmas lunch hosted by Zaren Vassallo, a Nationalist donor who, back in those heady days of Labour opposition before 2013, was a bête noire of the PL. But that is where the deputy PM is of course, as a “guest of honour” for one of Malta’s largest elderly healthcare providers.

The question is, does Fearne fit the profile of a leader like Muscat?

In politics, people want to have a dream. Arguably, people like Adrian Delia fail to make inroads because they cannot conjure up a future where people need not worry. That is what Muscat did, and whether you love that dream or not, the people who believed him felt their future would be a better one with him. And that’s something that Labour delegates keep in mind, something that Nationalist councillors could not fathom during the panicked leadership campaign of 2017: a leader must be able to keep the party together and not increase the chance of cracks and divisions.

Neither Fearne nor Delia seem to fit that profile. And the decision for party delegates to choose a next prime minister or Opposition leader will not be created from within the newsprint columns, but by larger groups of people impacted by the decisions that affect their daily lives. In their wisdom, Labour delegates and paid-up members will choose someone who reached out to them with the belief that they will be the best leader this nation could have.

As things stand, Fearne knows the name of the game and his army is out on the frontlines. He is geared to win. As Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics, and nobody, least of all me, will try to look into the future to say what could happen.