Muscat must end the uncertainty he started

Both the Labour Party and the country needs a clear leadership succession schedule, with a clearly laid-out plan as to when Muscat will step down, and how the leadership contest would play out

On Saturday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat broke his silence to make an announcement that duly hit the front-pages of all Malta’s newspapers.

Contrary to speculation, he declared that he would not be stepping down now, or after the budget.

“Let me be very clear: I have no intention of resigning before, during, nor after the next Budget,” Muscat said. “The budget is so important not when it is devised, but also [in terms] of it being implemented. My only concern is to do the work which is needed in the coming months to keep pushing Malta higher.”

This followed an internal meeting, in which Muscat told ministers vying for his job, in no uncertain terms, that they needed to tone down their leadership campaigning.

Sources close to the government told MaltaToday that Muscat spoke to his deputy Chris Fearne, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg, and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, after they scaled up their personal campaigns over the summer months.

“The Prime Minister returned from his summer holiday to find the ministers in an overdrive of self-promotion. This irked Joseph Muscat and he told them to rein in their campaigns,” the sources said.

The Prime Minister’s ‘message’ led to the immediate closure last week of two Facebook groups, that served as campaign platforms for Ian Borg and Konrad Mizzi.

While Muscat’s supporters will no doubt welcome his determination to stay on, the unrest that has developed within the Labour Party is largely a problem of Muscat’s own making. Simply put: in politics it is always unwise to give oneself an expiry date.

One did not need hindsight to conclude that it was a mistake for Muscat to pre-emptively declare – even before becoming Prime Minister in 2013 – that ‘he would only do two terms’. The context in which Muscat had made that original promise was considerably different from today’s; yet Muscat seems to have expected the reality of 2013 to persist until 2022, even though, traditionally, prime ministers usually face their most serious political tests after winning their second election, not their first.

If so, it is a mistake similar to the one made by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – whose promise to hand the reins to his deputy, Gordon Brown, similarly returned to haunt him halfway through his second term.

Either way, Muscat should have predicted that his earlier commitment would pnly encourage his more ambitious lieutenants to start jockeying for a position they – not unreasonably – assume will soon be vacant. This is, in fact, the inevitable fruit of Muscat’s earlier words.

But now that Muscat has started to show some signs of regret, he must also be aware that a refusal to resign – even if, legally, there is nothing forcing him to step down beyond his own declaration – will not suffice to end the miasma of uncertainty that has now gripped both his party and the country.

It is not enough for Joseph Muscat to say that he will not be stepping down ‘now or after the budget’… without giving any clear indication of when (if at all) he will step down.

This state of uncertainty is unhealthy, within the PL but also on a national level. Even from a logistical angle: how can the Civil Service continue to implement government policy, when – today, tomorrow, the day after, or whenever – there may be a sudden shake-up of all the ministries they are answerable to… or even of the policies themselves?

For the fact a Prime Minister might (but then again, might not) step down midway though his second term, also creates inevitable confusion within government’s entire modus operandi. And this has ramifications for the rest of the country: everything – possibly including investment – might get ‘put on hold’ until a clearer picture of the immediate future comes into view.

Having made this mistake to begin with, it is now incumbent on Joseph Muscat to, at the very least, announce a precise date by when he will make his intentions crystal clear.

Both the Labour Party and the country needs a clear leadership succession schedule, with a clearly laid-out plan as to when Muscat will step down, and how the leadership contest would play out.

Moreover, it is simply unfair to continuing to put off a precise exit date. It is, after all, only natural that interested parties wanting to contest the leadership of the PL should be prepared, and in a position to campaign for the post.

However, Muscat must be aware that the moment he announces a date for stepping down, the leadership race within the PL will kick off, with all attention and resources of interested candidates put into electioneering, and barely anything else.

Once Muscat announces a date when he will step down, all eyes will be on the candidates and their campaigns. We’re already seeing a lot of posturing and manoeuvering by possible contenders: announcing the date will serve as a starter-pistol for the race itself. And at that precise moment, Muscat himself will already be history.

All the same, he only has himself to blame. Joseph Muscat started this uncertainty and speculation; he must now end it... and with it, his own career.