A house divided

It was smiles all around when Adrian Delia and Simon Busuttil announced the break-through truce: but those smiles couldn’t conceal the naked daggers drawn beneath

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

One of the dangers of waging a war of annihilation between two parties is that, sooner or later, one of those two parties will indeed be annihilated. There is no guarantee which.

The first surveys to emerge after the Egrant inquiry conclusions seem to indicate the political fall-out of that issue has already begun. According to one poll – exactly how ‘scientific’ remains unclear – the Nationalist Party would only scrape together 16.5% of the popular vote, if an election were held today.

These results have to be treated with caution, naturally. But even a cursory glance at the situation within the PN will confirm that the party is now in free-fall. The Nationalist Party has neatly divided itself into two antagonistic factions, which only narrowly averted an all-out split by means of a very uneasy compromise, negotiated through the mediation of Lawrence Gonzi (among others).

It was smiles all around when Adrian Delia and Simon Busuttil announced the break-through truce: but those smiles couldn’t conceal the naked daggers drawn beneath. The Nationalist Party is now a house divided: and unless it heals its internal wounds before the next election in 2022 – an unlikely possibility, given the incompatible nature of the two factions – there is every reason to suppose that even the most dire projections may not be far from the truth.

The situation itself is not of current leader Adrian Delia’s own making. Delia himself cannot be impugned with the findings of the Egrant inquiry, because he entered the political scene after the election that had been fought on the Egrant battlefield. Moreover, he is right to state that the PN cannot possibly hope to regain public confidence, unless it acknowledges the main thrust of that inquiry: i.e., that magistrate Aaron Bugeja concluded there was nothing to prove that Egrant belonged to Joseph Muscat or his wife Michelle.

But to acknowledge as much is, de facto, to acknowledge that the PN, under its previous leader, had hitched its wagon to a sinking ship. Knowingly or unknowingly, former leader Simon busuttil allowed himself to be exploited by those who intended to destroy Joseph Muscat completely, and derail the entire democratic process.

Astonishingly, Busuttil has to date resisted shouldering responsibility for this disastrous mistake. In so doing, he placed the party leader in the awkward situation of having to ask him to step down himself.

But this only illustrated the extent of the weakness in Delia’s position. Though technically right, Adrian Delia was too hasty when he called for Simon Busuttil to suspend himself from the party. Could it be that Delia was advised by those around that this was the perfect time to get rid of Busuttil? If so, he should have tested the waters before dipping in his toes.

In the end, Delia’s call for Busuttil’s resignation only garnered the disdain of many within the PN, including the parliamentary group, who immediately jumped to Busuttil’s defence and insisted Delia should not have acted as he did before reading the full report submitted to the AG.

This resulted in the divide within the PN in general, and the parliamentary group in particular, becoming even more conspicuous than ever; as it is now blatantly clear that Busuttil still enjoys the backing of many.

MaltaToday revealed last week that a number of Nationalist MPs were even seeking to secure the support of enough within their group to be able to force Delia out through a vote of no confidence. That is what seemed to have pre-empted the negotiations that reportedly went long into the night and over the weekend, as the party scrambled to clear the new mess it found itself in of its own making.

The outcome was that Delia ended up going back on his decision – after insisting publicly that he would not back down – and withdrawing his call for Busuttil to suspend himself. It was a humiliation for Delia, and a minor victory for the Busuttil faction... but all things considered, a major defeat for the Nationalist Party as a whole, which must now forge ahead as best it can with half its crew in open mutiny.

Delia may have stripped Busuttil of his good governance portfolio, but the fact remains that the crisis is still there. If anything, it is now more obvious and out in the open, as Delia knows that he cannot be rid of Busuttil through such manoeuvring. The former leader, Delia learned to his cost, still enjoys enough support to exert influence. Indirectly, this also means that the PN will not be able to exorcise the ghost of Egrant for a good while longer.

This has not stopped the PN media from coming out in full force, to propagate the idea that all is now fine and dandy, and that the party is ‘strong and united’. But these are empty words, easily belied by a reality everyone can now see with their own eyes.

All this leaves Delia in the unenviable position of having to reassert a stamp of authority and direction over the party, after the illusion of unity was so dramatically and irremediably shattered. And he must do so sooner rather than later.