Bernard’s troubles: one step forward, two steps back

PN leader Bernard Grech has not capitalised on polls showing the first flimsy signs of recovery to affirm his leadership in the party, backtracking on a major overhaul of his shadow cabinet, raising questions on the authority he commands in his party

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

Days after MaltaToday published a poll showing Bernard Grech not only reuniting his party’s voters, but also making small inroads among Labour voters – with 11% of PL voters in 2017 trusting him more than Abela compared to 6% of PN voters who trust Abela more – the PN leader stumbled in the face of resistance by MPs to an overhaul of his shadow cabinet.

The PN leader denies that he has backtracked in the face of a mutiny, insisting that this was part of a process of dialogue with MPs.

But even if this was the case, the end result was that, with the exception of Claudio Grech’s “policy transformation” portfolio, Grech retained the status quo, a clear indication that he prefers not to rock the boat. This could be understandable considering that as things stand the talent pool in the PN parliamentary group is so limited; reshuffling roles might not add much value. In reality, what the PN needs most are new faces, not just any reshuffle.

But Grech knows that to win back the trust of the electorate he has to convince voters that the PN has a capable team ready to govern the country, and that his MPs are no longer a rowdy bunch holding on to their turf in a declining opposition, but a team energised by the prospect of governing the country.

‘If they can do this in opposition…’

It has been reported that Bernard Grech was forced to retain most of the MPs in their current shadow positions after facing a backlash from his parliamentary group and their constituents.

Significantly, Stephen Spiteri and Robert Arrigo were retained as spokespersons for health and tourism respectively despite Grech’s initial intention to reassign their portfolios. Others key portfolios where Grech made no changes include finance, infrastructure and foreign affairs where Mario de Marco, Toni Bezzina and Carm Mifsud Bonnici have retained their respective posts.

The only major change was reassigning the compliant Jason Azzopardi from the justice portfolio to shadowing Clyde Caruana on work and employment, a change which falls short of addressing the need of boosting the party’s credentials on social and economic policy, an area where the party is in desperate need of new blood.

But apart from exposing the limits of the talent pool which inevitably crippled Grech, reports of sitting MPs defending their turf and resisting reassignment to other roles have left voters wondering on how these MPs would have reacted had Grech been prime minister.

For if Nationalist MPs can obstruct a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet where the stakes are low, one wonders how they would have reacted in power. The episode underlines the fragility of Grech’s hold in the party. Grech himself has been careful not to sideline MPs known for their loyalty to former leader Adrian Delia. But any insubordination by MPs is bound to perpetuate the perception that the PN’s front-bench is not only poor in talent but lacks unity. The fact that this insubordination filtered into the media suggests that Grech does not even command the authority and respect to preclude such leaks. If he is unable to command the loyalty of his MPs now, he will find it even harder to keep them in their place if he finds himself Prime Minister.

Renewal easier in Labour

Added to this is the resistance of old-timers to pave the way for newcomers in strategic posts like that of party secretary-general and the party’s two deputy leaders. The sight of Francis Zammit Dimech re-contesting the secretary-general post suggests the party is still struggling to renew itself. The decision of Robert Arrigo and David Agius to stay on in their deputy leadership posts also prevents the party from presenting a renewed leadership team.

This contrasts with the PL, which has only recently replaced Chris Cardona with Daniel Jose Micallef. For after Joseph Muscat’s downfall, Roberta Abela invested in renewing his party, strengthening the perception that his government is not a continuation of Muscat’s but a new one.

While Grech finds it difficult to introduce new blood in his party, Abela is doing the exact opposite, renewing his parliamentary group through co-options which has seen the inclusion of Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana in Cabinet and former disability rights commissioner Oliver Scicluna in Labour’s parliamentary group.

Consumed by culture wars

The PN still has not managed to capture the popular imagination through any new major policy proposal, with Grech even remaining very cautious on rocking the boat on issues such hunting, with Edwin Vassallo appointed spokesperson for this ‘pastime’, and David Thake’s demotion from environment spokesperson following critical declarations on the Mizieb land grab.

This suggests a strategic thinking dictated by the need to recover the party’s strength in districts where the party trails Labour by a large margin. But in the absence of a coherent vision and inspiring faces, such overtures simply reinforce the splits in the PN, eroding inroads by the PN among environmentalists and nature lovers.

In short, compromises on hunting dictated by realpolitik may be acceptable even for a majority of PN voters who oppose it, but only where the PN can offer hope on other major aspects of policy like land use, social welfare and economic direction.

And yet, it remains unclear whether Grech can offer a new deal for ordinary people in matters like wages, investment and housing. Without such major policy planks, issues like hunting risk eroding the party’s appeal within its own urban heartlands.

In short, the PN needs to convey a vision of change and propose a viable team attractive enough to keep voters on opposite sides of culture wars on hunting and civil liberties, on board. For a coalition that can house a diversity of ideologies and mind-frames, the PN needs a glue which renders these differences irrelevant to the main task at hand: that of giving the country a prospect of an alternative government.

Without that glue, the PN is likely to be consumed by these culture wars instead of attracting people from opposite sides of these divides as Labour manages to do. Declarations by Edwin Vassallo describing equal marriage as “inhuman” days after the party reshuffle, was yet another throwback testing Grech’s ability to keep liberals and conservatives on board. Grech may either choose to do what Muscat did in opposition, where he left arch-conservative Adrian Vassallo gasping for air as he rolled out his civil liberties agenda before 2013; or decide to do nothing and not to rock the boat. Without new policies and new people, people are even more likely to associate the PN with Vassallo’s bizarre declarations.

Claudio to the rescue

In a sign that Grech is aware his party’s greatest shortcoming is the absence of a coherent vision, his most significant decision was the appointment of MP Claudio Grech – a tech-savvy social conservative who previously shadowed the health and economy portfolios – in a new role in his party, becoming responsible for policy transformation inside the PN.

In terms of organisational skills Grech remains one of the party’s best assets. But the upcoming policy renewal also depends on widening the party’s talent pool beyond the limited expertise of the parliamentary group.

Ultimately people vote for other people, not abstractions and policies. Come next election, the electorate will be comparing potential Nationalist ministers against their respective counterparts in government. And while the latter may be showing the first signs of arrogance and a fair share of incompetence, the PN remains a long way from presenting the better team.

A reputation for competence is no guarantee for integrity, good governance and fairness. But the PN cannot aspire to win if it is perceived as a mediocre alternative to Labour. And the only way to change that is through electing a new crop of MPs.

Failure to regenerate the parliamentary group with a near-certain defeat in the next election, will even endanger the prospect of a PN victory in 2027.

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