Robert Muscat and Joseph Abela

The statement ‘my friend Joseph’, uttered at the start of January, could come back to haunt the Prime Minister if circumstances change and the marriage of convenience has to end

The Labour Party has often mocked its political rival for having too many leaders calling the shots. The description may not have been too far-fetched given the factionalism that has characterised the Nationalist Party over the past decade.

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat tried to play on this factionalism by mockingly conflating Roberta Metsola’s name with that of former PN leader Simon Busuttil when addressing a mass rally marking the start of Alex Agius Saliba’s MEP campaign.

It is an age-old tactic used to belittle political rivals and diminish their status – former Labour leader Alfred Sant was a master at this, asking supporters and people around him during mass meetings to ‘remind him’ what the name of the target ‘enemy’ was.

The only problem with Muscat’s trope is that the very same argument can today be applied to the Labour Party.

After the former leader forcefully stepped into Robert Abela’s limelight at the start of a protracted electoral campaign, no one can be faulted for asking who is really calling the shots in Labour.

Joseph Muscat did not only speak about his achievements, while defending himself from accusations of corruption, but also attempted to outline what the PL’s ‘project’ for the next 10 years should be. It was a speech worthy of a leader that had supporters applauding and shouting his name.

There was also a very subtle dig at Abela’s administration for failing to celebrate the graduation of medical students from the Gozo Barts Medical School – the only successful component of the hospitals deal.

Within this context, all the talk of unity was nothing more than rhetoric intended to put supporters’ minds at rest that all is well in the PL.

But no amount of euphoria can hide the simple fact that Muscat’s foray into the political realm, even if he does not contest the European election, has overshadowed Abela’s status. The PL now has a leader and his predecessor fighting for limelight.

What is unclear as yet is whether Muscat made an unsolicited entry back into the fray thus challenging Abela’s supremacy; or whether he was subtly reeled in by Abela himself only to see the fishing rod being gobbled up along with the bait.

At this stage, the PL has two leaders competing for attention - Robert Abela and Joseph Muscat, or should it be Robert Muscat and Joseph Abela?

Political history teaches us this is a recipe for disaster – the PN’s very recent history is testament to this.

The friction may not be apparent in the immediate future because both leaders have a common goal, albeit for different reasons. They both want the PL to win big in the coming European election. The situation at present is pretty much like a marriage of convenience.

Abela wants another crowning moment in the middle of a legislature that has shown signs of growing political disenchantment. Muscat could provide the hand that turns victory into a super victory.

Muscat also wants the PL to win big, even if he is not a candidate, because it will give him an electoral bubble wrap if things go south in the Steward hospitals magisterial inquiry. It will be very hard for Abela to publicly denounce or distance himself from Muscat in this eventuality.

But friction like this is bound to create discontent over the medium to long term and like a festering wound it could cause problems to Abela.

The statement ‘my friend Joseph’, uttered at the start of January, could come back to haunt the Prime Minister if circumstances change and the marriage of convenience has to end.