The PN grassroots may still not have warmed up to Simon Busuttil

There’s no open rebellion inside the PN, but Busuttil has to take stock of grassroots’ complaints  

The Labour machine has pushed the line in its media that Busuttil was facing an open rebellion from MP
The Labour machine has pushed the line in its media that Busuttil was facing an open rebellion from MP

A groundswell of complaints from grassroots over the performance of Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has captured the Labour propaganda machine’s imagination, as it attempts to dampen the PN’s forthcoming Independence celebrations.

The 21st September celebrations will be another occasion for Busuttil to make his mark with party supporters after a summer of apparent inaction which even left some MPs smarting at missed opportunities for the PN.

The most recent was the relative silence by the Opposition on Sliema residents’ concerns over permits issued for high-rise projects in what is a staunch Nationalist constituency.

Since then, the Labour machine has picked up on the apparent dissatisfaction among grassroots PN supporters, pushing the line in its media that Busuttil was facing an open rebellion from MPs.

But three Nationalist MPs – from three different electoral districts – who spoke to MaltaToday were all in agreement that Busuttil was not facing a leadership threat, even though polling numbers from both Labour and PN quarters over the past weeks had dealt a demoralizing blow to the inner party core.

“What is happening is that our activists complain about the lacklustre performance of Busuttil and it’s becoming all too impossible for them not to notice it. But MPs are intent on pulling the same rope as we get closer to what could be an election year,” one MP, from a southern district, said.

Another MP, this time from a central district, said he was aware of the activists’ gripes but dismissed the Labour spin on MPs pushing for a leadership change. “The polling numbers indicate that we need to work harder and that Busuttil has to make his mark, if we are to have a decent showing. But of those MPs who harbour leadership ambitions, nobody is going to make a move to end up tainted with an electoral loss in 2017 or 2018.”

A third MP, from a northern district, corroborated reports of complaints from grassroots activists, and spoke at length of hushed-down leadership ambitions from MPs like Chris Said and Claudio Grech, and also MEP Roberta Metsola.

“There’s been some careless talk during some sectional committee meetings that attracted attention because of some badmouthing. It’s no secret that Chris Said and Claudio Grech are biding their time for a future leadership bid. Roberta Metsola too is said to be convinced she could be in with a chance.”

Simon Busuttil yesterday convened a parliamentary group meeting to discuss bribery allegations by a Libyan national made against a health ministry official responsible for medical visas, on which police investigations so far have proved fruitless.

“Busuttil knows he is up against a very able communicator,” the southern MP said with reference to Joseph Muscat. “So he will have to get back to basics and show his grassroots he is one of them.”

One of Busuttil’s apparent mishaps recently has been the belated action taken on Sliema’s Townsquare, where residents from the Tigné area seemed to be alone in protesting the 38-storey tower. They were backed by Sliema’s PN-dominated council, as well as Green Party councillor Michael Briguglio and the independent MP Marlene Farrugia.

Although he later complained on PN radio station 101 that the PN “does not agree that Malta should become like another Dubai, with everything built up and profit the only god”, critics say his protest came late in the day.

“It was a golden opportunity for Busuttil to be seen near people who are committed PN voters, but instead he was talking about the expansion of the Malta Freeport that week,” one of the MPs said.

On the other hand, a Labour insider inside the Office of the Prime Minister, tried to bolster the impression that Busuttil’s leadership is facing mutiny. “Our recent polling is showing us we would be returned to government with a sizeable majority if elections were held tomorrow – pretty much anything upward of 25,000 votes. Busuttil is rightfully concerned about his future.”

Beyond the speculation, there is clear agreement that the PN leader will have to invest in a revamped and perhaps radical message to capture his supporters’ imagination and appeal to the aspirations of floating voters within the next 12 months.

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