[ANALYSIS] Why Labour is spinning a leadership tussle in the PN

Many rank and file PN voters openly acknowledge that Busuttil is not the best leader their party can have. But if Busuttil is so unelectable why does Labour appear so enthusiastic for a leadership change in the PN?

Labour’s current spin that Busuttil faces an imminent internal leadership challenge is not grounded in reality and can be seen as an attempt to destabilise the PN leader on the eve of the PN’s annual independence day celebrations
Labour’s current spin that Busuttil faces an imminent internal leadership challenge is not grounded in reality and can be seen as an attempt to destabilise the PN leader on the eve of the PN’s annual independence day celebrations

It is no secret that rank and file Nationalists are not over the moon about the electoral prospects of Simon Busuttil. If bets are taken now, few even among PN stalwarts would bet on the PN leader ever becoming Prime Minister. 

But Labour’s current spin that Busuttil faces an imminent internal leadership challenge is not grounded in reality and can be seen as an attempt to destabilise the PN leader on the eve of the PN’s annual independence day celebrations – which normally re-opens the political season after the summer lull. It is probably the end of summer appointment for which Busuttil has been preparing for weeks.

The Independence Day celebration is traditionally an occasion where PN leaders are expected to recharge the batteries of the party’s most earnest supporters. It provides an occasion for Busuttil to restore the morale of the troops after the disappointment they felt seeing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat weather the Panama story which had filled them with hope that the party had become electable again.

It is no surprise that the PL wants to spoil the party. Over the past days Labour’s spin machine has been busy highlighting dissent on the PN benches with Glenn Bedingfield claiming that nine Nationalist MPs are ‘not happy’ with Busuttil. 

A meeting of the parliamentary group called by Simon Busuttil to discuss the bribery allegations surrounding the issuance of medical visas, has also been depicted by Labour news website ONE as one where Busuttil will ask his MPs whether they still have faith in him to lead the party. A statement by the Prime Minister’s own office claimed that Busuttil summoned an urgent parliamentary group meeting in light of his “increasingly precarious” position as leader of the Nationalist Party. 

After Panamagate

Busuttil may well have gone overboard on Panamagate in expecting the government to crumble in the throes of the devastating revelations. Smelling the chance of finally asserting his leadership Busuttil called two national protests, called for a no-confidence vote in the government and backed two other no-confidence motions, without seeing any significant surge in opinion polls. Muscat still scraped through, defying public opinion by retaining Konrad Mizzi as a minister while still soundly beating Busuttil in trust ratings conducted by different polling agencies, which showed the two parties neck and neck when it comes to voting preferences.

There is logic on why Labour is hitting hard at Busuttil now. It has to do with preserving its main electoral advantage: that Muscat remains more trusted than Busuttil even if his credibility has been damaged. But after Panamagate Labour is no longer taking its adversary for granted. Therefore it hopes to demolish the adversary before he has any chance of recovering lost ground.   

For although Muscat may have survived Panamagate, the perception that his government is failing in transparency, good governance and honesty has taken deep roots. Added to this is a growing perception of Labour being too close to business interests, ignoring growing environmental and social concerns.

The logic behind spin

Muscat may have lost the moral high ground, which he enjoyed before the 2013 general election, and for Labour to win it has to press on his popularity by undermining Busuttil in the eyes of voters. Fully knowing that Busuttil is here to stay at least until the next general election, Labour’s tactic is that of creating the perception that Busuttil is not a leader worthy of the electorate’s trust. If Busuttil is not even trusted by his MPs how can normal voters trust him?

In reality Labour’s spin is targeted at voters and not at encouraging Nationalist MPs to challenge Busuttil; it aims at retaining Muscat’s trust lead over Busuttil in opinion polls. In fact it makes any challenge to Busuttil even more unlikely as any internal criticism of Busuttil will now be seen as a gift to Labour’s spin machine. But by undermining Busuttil among PN voters, Labour compensates for its own problems with the ‘grass roots’ some of whom may be increasingly disoriented by the party’s actions in government.  

The potential contenders 

What is sure is that it is extremely unlikely for potential leadership aspirants like Claudio Grech or Roberta Metsola to undermine Simon Busuttil before the next general election, which would earn them a reputation for spoiling the party’s electoral chances and be perceived as Labour’s allies.

MEP Roberta Metsola
MEP Roberta Metsola

The two deputy leaders; Mario de Marco and Beppe Fenech Adami would also share the blame if the party is trounced at the next general election. If Busuttil does manage to reduce the gap substantially he may likely remain at the helm after the next general election. This may frustrate potential contenders who may bank on Busuttil losing heavily as their only way to force him out of the leadership.

But if Labour retains the gap or increases it there may well be no pieces for an alternative PN leader to pick up. In a sense the party, including any future aspirant for the leadership, cannot afford a second consecutive “knock out” humiliation. In the absence of a change of leader now, the party has no choice but to close ranks behind Busuttil, to stand a real chance of winning back power, if not in 2018 sometime in 2022 or 2023. Inheriting a complete wreck is probably not in the interest of any contender with leadership aspirations.

Moreover any contenders probably would not even like to become leaders before an election where the party starts with a 36,000 vote disadvantage. And while Nationalist voters may not be enthusiastic about their party’s chances at the next election, they may be suspicious of any manoeuvre which undermines party unity at a moment when they expect the party to oppose Labour.  

The Nationalist grassroots

Labour’s advantage is that the spin resonates with a sense of discontentment among ‘grass root’ Nationalists who for various reasons question their leader’s electability and competence.  

Labour’s claims that Busuttil is facing an imminent challenge to his leadership may be a blatant invention but it does tap into the discontentment of ordinary Nationalist voters.  

Surely there is no prototype of the grass root Nationalist. Nationalist leaning commentator Simon Mercieca has lambasted the party for trying to appease liberals by not being vocal enough on issues like the depenalisation of vilification. Some voters in areas such as Sliema may have expected a stronger position on high-rise developments while some others fear that the party is losing its links with big business.  

The overriding problem for Busuttil is that so far he has lacked the gravitas to give a wide coalition of liberals and conservatives an over-riding sense of purpose, which would see him exploit the shortcomings of the Muscat administration. Unlike Fenech Adami he has not yet re-invented himself as a people’s tribune confronting the new elite, while remaining the target of Labour’s smear that he is part and parcel of the elite which ran Malta when the PN was in power. Instead Busuttil faces the complacency of many of his voters who readily acknowledge that as long as the economy keeps growing, a change in government remains extremely unlikely.

There have been some rumblings that suggest that not all is well in the PN.

In a Facebook status, Mosta mayor Edwin Vassallo warned that egoism within the PN could cause the party to suffer a second consecutive election defeat. 

“Everybody in the party must get on the same page and forget about his or her own personal interests,” he wrote. “If the PN remains akin to a party club in which everyone only cares about his or her own personal interests, then the situation will not change. I believe that the solution for this country lies in altruism, not in egoism.” 

But his message only confirms that the problem in the party is not that Busuttil is facing an imminent challenge to his leadership but that not everyone is doing enough for the party to win the next election.

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi also shared a quote by US pastor Andy Stanley on his Facebook wall, that “leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say”. ONE interpreted Azzopardi’s cryptic post as a subtle warning to Simon Busuttil but one may well interpret this as a generic message, which may well apply to Muscat.

All in all Labour’s assault on the PN leader also betrays a degree of nervousness. For although the PL machine is dismissive of the PN leader, it still keeps on harping on him as if he is a real threat.  Even Fenech Adami was constantly belittled by Labour propagandists in the 1970s and 1980s. The constant attempts to belittle Busuttil may well backfire if these are seen as attempts to deflect attention from Labour’s own troubles but for this to happen Busuttil must convince the electorate that he is electable, a task in which he has so far failed. Yet Labour is not taking any risks and this explains its constant attempts to undermine Busuttil’s leadership. 

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