Muscat: Only a clear message can avoid the mess slowly building up inside Labour

Only a clear, unambiguous statement from Joseph Muscat that he is willing to continue to lead the Labour party… can avoid the mess that is slowly building up within the Labour Party

The inexperienced Muscat, who had declared that he would only serve two terms as Prime Minister, did not realise the damage that revealing this intention in public would make to the party in his second term
The inexperienced Muscat, who had declared that he would only serve two terms as Prime Minister, did not realise the damage that revealing this intention in public would make to the party in his second term

This opinion piece was first published on Sunday 15 September

Joseph Muscat’s declaration that he will be Prime Minister for only two terms – made long ago under circumstances that are very different from the current situation – has returned back to haunt him.

After reportedly losing the chances of being given a high-profile post in the EU, Muscat’s intention to quit the Labour leadership at the end of the current administration term is in the news again.

The Times reported on Wednesday that the Labour Party had even made an internal poll to monitor the ranking of the five or so ‘pretenders’ to the throne. According to this report, deputy prime minister Chris Fearne is currently in the lead with MEP Miriam Dalli being a close second.

A day later the same newspaper reported that “the current Labour administration did not take kindly to anything that resembles leadership campaigning.” To the extent that two Facebook groups backing two of the five undeclared candidates – Ministers Konrad Mizzi and Ian Borg – were suspended, presumably at the behest of the party administration.

I am sure that the inexperienced Muscat, who had declared that he would only serve two terms as Prime Minister, did not realise the damage that revealing this intention in public would do to the party in his second term.

Second terms are always much more difficult than first terms for any administration. It is quite normal for the party in government to start facing what I describe as ‘second term blues’ by seeing its grip on the electorate weakening in the middle of the second term. This is happening at the moment.

Adding to this normal political development, the determination of the party leader not to serve beyond a second term complicates matters and makes them worse.

At the moment, only a clear unambiguous statement from Joseph Muscat, saying that he has changed his mind and he is willing to continue to lead the Labour Party in its third successive term, can avoid the mess that is slowly building up within the Labour Party.

Muscat has refused to do this and therefore the situation remains fluid and ripe for the jockeying for positions and the internal struggles that any leadership race causes in any political party.

This is the situation that the current administration finds itself in – a situation in which the leader naturally loses his grip on the party because he is considered to be on the way out.

The news reported in the Malta Independent that Muscat has not yet spoken to his Cabinet about his exit date while ministers have started taking decisions without consulting Cabinet, clearly indicates the current fluid state of Muscat’s second administration. According to the same report the 2020 budget – to be published in a few weeks’ time – will “signal the start of the end of Muscat’s premiership.”

I doubt it. That would mean that Muscat will not even last his second term as Prime Minister because confirming that he will quit without setting a date – allowing for a short period for the succession race – would continue to upset the administration’s applecart.

No political party can take a two-year leadership race in its stride without serious consequences to the party’s cohesion. Leadership contests necessarily damage the party’s unity. When the contest is fought within a short time-frame, this damage is normally superficial. Not so if it is protracted over two years!

Muscat’s declared intention to quit his post after two terms has therefore led to many unintended consequences at the expense of the reliability of his own administration.

Even so, it is quite impossible for the party administration to control these circumstances by creating a situation in which no leadership succession race is officially on while everybody knows it exists unofficially.

Muscat’s succession is becoming the elephant in the Cabinet room and in the Labour party executive committee.
Ignoring it will exacerbate the fluidity that results from the party losing its sense of direction.

Brexit is Brexit

‘Operation Yellowhammer’ is the name of a report on the worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit that the British government had to publish after it was forced to do so by Parliament.

The damning assessment, which the British government tried to keep secret (but was leaked to The Sunday Times of London last month), suggested public preparedness for a no-deal was low and warned of intense pressure to return to the negotiating table with the EU if the UK crashes out.

The report undermines Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that the UK can cope with a no-deal Brexit, and will further stimulate opposition to his strategy to take the UK out of the EU on October 31, whatever the consequences.

The British Parliament has already passed a law intended to prevent Johnson forcing through a no-deal Brexit, but he seems to be set on doing it anyway.

The document includes the following scenarios:

On day one, as many as 85% of trucks attempting to cross the Dover-Calais straits may not be ready for French customs, blocking flow through the ports.

Medicines are “particularly vulnerable” to severe extended delays; some cannot be stockpiled, and for others it is not practical to stockpile.
Supplies of some fresh foods will decrease; there will also be a reduced choice of products.

Some cross-border UK financial services will be disrupted; regional traffic disruption could affect fuel distribution; immediate imposition of EU tariffs will “severely disrupt” trade with Ireland, with agriculture and food being the hardest-hit sectors.

No-deal arrangements for the Irish border will be “unsustainable” and force the UK back to the negotiating table in days or weeks. And there could be clashes between UK and EU fishing fleets.

According to The Sunday Times, a paragraph that was redacted from the published version – ostensibly for reasons of commercial confidentiality – dealt with the impact on oil refineries. EU tariffs will make UK gasoline exports uncompetitive, and the government’s decision to set import tariffs on gasoline at 0% will likely result in two refineries – employing some 2,000 – having to close down.

After this report was published, the Labour Shadow Brexit secretary – Sir Keir Starmer – said it is “more important than ever” that Parliament is recalled.

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