Looking forward 2024: Wanted... Labour Party deputy leader

The Labour Party will have to prepare itself for a deputy leadership race if Chris Fearne darts off to the Berlaymont in Brussels. KURT SANSONE speculates on the likely contenders aiming to become the next deputy prime minister

Chris Fearne lost the leadership race to Robert Abela in 2020 but stayed on as deputy leader, a post he is expected to relinquish in the second half of 2024 if he becomes Malta’s next European Commissioner
Chris Fearne lost the leadership race to Robert Abela in 2020 but stayed on as deputy leader, a post he is expected to relinquish in the second half of 2024 if he becomes Malta’s next European Commissioner

With Chris Fearne becoming Malta’s next European Commissioner a vacancy will be created in the Labour Party for the post of deputy leader parliamentary affairs. 

Fearne was elected deputy leader in the summer of 2017 having been the dark horse in a three-way race with Helena Dalli and Edward Scicluna for the post vacated by Louis Grech. 

He unsuccessfully contested the PL leadership in 2020, losing to Robert Abela, but stayed on as deputy leader and deputy prime minister. 

If Fearne does make the Brussels grade – there is little that suggests he won’t – and becomes Malta’s next European Commissioner, a race for deputy leader will open up after the summer. 

The winner of the race will not only form part of the triumvirate leadership but will automatically become Robert Abela’s number two in government. 

The PL statute states that only MPs can contest the post of deputy leader parliamentary affairs and the vote will be held among delegates of the general conference. The winner will have to obtain 50%+1 of the votes and if none of the contestants obtains such a result, the top two will take part in a run off. 

This means that the list of potential names for Fearne’s replacement is limited to the 41 Labour MPs (excluding the Prime Minister and Fearne himself). 

Who will throw their hat in the ring? Who may be eyeing the prize? Will a dark horse emerge? 

We gaze into the crystal ball to try and find out who will seek Fearne’s inheritance and whose name may be floated even if they may not yet be interested. 

Miriam Dalli 

She planned her return from Brussels in the hope of contesting the Labour leadership in 2020 but was left out in the cold by internal manoeuvres that sought a one-horse race involving only Chris Fearne. The proposed neat contest was disrupted when Robert Abela decided to throw his hat in the ring. Dalli and other possible contenders were left standing on the side-lines. She eventually returned from Brussels under Abela’s leadership almost a year later to be given a super ministry comprising the environment, energy and enterprise. Dalli’s ambition for leader may have been dampened as a result of the 2020 debacle but she may still want a stronger position within the party. Dalli, who will be 48 in May, does enjoy support among delegates and party functionaries, having risen through the ranks. She can also bank on the support of an army of women she coached as part of the PL’s training programme for women candidates, LEAD. If elected, she will be the first woman to occupy a leadership post within the PL. Dalli would bring charm, a European perspective, moderation and political astuteness to the post. She could also be the antidote to a resurgent PN if Roberta Metsola replaces Bernard Grech. But her chances also depend on whether delegates perceive her to be combative enough in a political system that attaches value to ‘tough’ politicians. And with the contest happening in the third quarter, she will be hoping that summer 2024 will not throw a spanner in the works through a prolonged heatwave that causes the electricity grid to go haywire. 

Silvio Schembri 

The Economy Minister is a party boy, who knows how to whip up an audience, something that cannot be underestimated. He has often been touted as Robert Abela’s choice for deputy leader but in Labour tradition the leader’s wishes are not necessarily granted by delegates, a predicament Schembri will be well aware of. His connections to big business – he has a district office rented out from a major developer – may be problematic for an electorate that is increasingly growing suspect of politicians but that may be inconsequential for delegates who will ultimately make the choice. Schembri’s economy portfolio was snipped when Malta Enterprise was whisked away to Miriam Dalli, forcing him to share the success of foreign investment with his fellow Cabinet member. 

Schembri was also the face of Malta’s questionable drive to attract crypto firms during the Muscat administration – his photo posing with Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao is less flattering today after the latter pleaded guilty in the US to money laundering charges. 

The Muscat administration’s ‘blockchain island’ and crypto drive may have fallen flat on its face but Schembri does take credit for pioneering regulations governing the fintech sector and pushing for more growth in the esports and videogame development sectors. 

With Schembri turning 39 in May, his relatively young age may enable him to connect more with younger audiences but if recent history is anything to go by it may also hinder his prospects with delegates. In the Muscat years, Labour delegates made it a habit of choosing a deputy leader for parliamentary affairs who was older than the leader – Anglu Farrugia, Louis Grech and Chris Fearne were all Joseph Muscat’s senior. 

Ian Borg 

After 2017, Ian Borg became the king of roads as he captained the Labour government’s flagship €700 million road programme. He is loved by motorists who appreciate the new and better roads and loathed by environmentalists for allowing Infrastructure Malta to bulldoze its way through community opposition. Nonetheless, Borg’s profile grew and in 2020 he also harboured leadership ambitions, which he eventually put aside to back Chris Fearne. 

After the last election, Borg was appointed foreign minister, a role that took him away from the local political playground and thrust him into the big international game. His profile surged in 2023 on the back of Malta’s membership of the UN Security Council and its presidency of the OSCE. He will take political credit for the Security Council resolution drafted by Malta, calling for humanitarian pauses in Gaza and for giving the Russian representative the cold shoulder in February when the Security Council commemorated the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a minute’s silence. 

Despite his meteoric rise in politics from mayor of a small village to chairing the UNSC and the OSCE, Borg knows well enough that the foreign office has often been the political deathbed of Maltese politicians. He will be 38 in February and if Borg still has the political oomph in him, he may very well be tempted to run for the number two spot. He will bring with him a can-do attitude tempered with the maturity gained while navigating the complex stretch of international waters. 

But if he does contest the deputy leadership, Borg will be subjected to further media scrutiny over the driving licence test scandal that happened on his watch at Transport Malta. Whether this scandal will impact party delegates is another matter altogether, although some may remember Konrad Mizzi’s short-lived stint as deputy leader party affairs in 2016 when he resigned after just two months as a result of the Panama Papers scandal. 

Roderick Galdes 

Roderick Galdes was elevated to housing minister in 2020, when he was entrusted with a key policy plank of the incoming Robert Abela. Galdes surrounded himself with knowledgeable technocrats at the ministry that helped deliver the important reform of pre-1995 protected rents without causing social upheaval. He also delivered on several housing schemes to help first time buyers and set up a foundation for affordable housing – a partnership between the government and the church. Galdes, who will be 49 in the new year, is somewhat of a veteran on the Labour benches having been first elected to parliament in 2004 when the leader was Alfred Sant. Only four other MPs are more senior than he is in terms of their parliamentary lifespan. Galdes may not be the exciting choice. He is not one to stand out and will bring little oomph to the second most important post in government. But then again, this is just the number two post and the less its holder shines, the more the leader will sparkle. Galdes has never shown any outward ambition to aim higher but he could turn out to be the dark horse in the race if he decides to take the plunge. 

Clifton Grima 

The Education Minister had been touted as an interested candidate when the position of deputy leader party affairs became vacant in 2020 after Chris Cardona resigned. Eventually, the context ended up a one-man race with Daniel Jose Micallef, the then party president, running on his own. It is unclear whether Grima will be tempted this time around to take the leap and aim for the post that Fearne will vacate. His ambitions will probably depend on who the other contenders are – he comes from the world of football and knows that the outcome of a game also depends on who the opponent is. Grima, who turns 41 in September, may lack the political stature to occupy the role but he has no controversies to his name, a quality that may be useful as the Labour government enters its 11th year in office. 

Clyde Caruana 

The Finance Minister’s name will definitely crop up within and outside Labour circles as a possible contender. However, it is unlikely Clyde Caruana will be interested in the role. A straight talker, the finance minister already enjoys a high profile and with the nation’s purse strings in his hands, he also has influence on government policy and direction. Caruana, who will be 39 in February, may have other ambitions and knows that the number two post is not necessarily a stepping stone for the leadership, if and when it becomes vacant. For the time being he will stay put at Maison Demandols in South Street although some delegates will be asking him to consider putting his name in the hat.