A Prime Minister with an expiry date? Not a good idea...

Joseph Muscat created uncertainty, then moved to quash it by making it clear that he will lead Labour into next year’s European elections. Why did the Malta PM feel the need to outline a partial roadmap?

Joseph Muscat and deputy prime minister Chris Fearne: the PM felt the need to tell voters he is still leading the party into the next European elections
Joseph Muscat and deputy prime minister Chris Fearne: the PM felt the need to tell voters he is still leading the party into the next European elections

It has been described by party insiders as a U-turn but Joseph Muscat’s statement last Sunday that he will not stop half way was intended to assert his leadership over the next 16 months.

Muscat did not retreat his promise to leave before the next general election but he did rekindle the hope among Labour supporters that he may yet change his mind.

That hope was extinguished in an interview Muscat gave on Radju Malta 2’s Ghandi Xi Nghid a fortnight ago. The Prime Minister emphatically told his interviewer that he intended to go, words that were interpreted by party insiders as having “blown the whistle” on the leadership race.

The interview with Andrew Azzopardi was one of those rare instances where Muscat let slip something without evaluating fully the repercussions.

In the week that followed there were rumblings in the party that Muscat may even choose to leave as early as summer and potential successors started evaluating their options more earnestly.

This newspaper is informed that Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne organised a meeting for his helpers. It is an open secret that Fearne harbours the ambition to contest the PL leadership when the vacancy arises and he also has a well-organised set-up of canvassers.

Although the meeting may have been nothing out of the ordinary, party sources said it may have come too close for comfort.

“A meeting for helpers is not a rare occasion but it came soon after Joseph Muscat signalled his intention to leave so clearly, which may have nudged the Prime Minister to re-think his strategy,” party sources said.

But it was not Fearne’s meeting of helpers alone that made Muscat map out his personal roadmap a mere week after creating uncertainty on his future.

On Sunday morning, MaltaToday reported party sources saying the leadership race would kick off slowly and silently in the wake of the Prime Minister’s radio comments.

Muscat must have realised that a prime minister with an expiry date will lose legitimacy among peers as they start searching for a potential successor. He risked losing his grip on ministers despite enjoying immense support at grassroots level.

By insisting that he will lead the party in next year’s European Parliament election, Muscat quashed rumours of an earlier than expected departure. But he also made it clear who is in charge, at least until June 2019.

A succession plan

There is also the personal scenario in all this. With the Prime Minister harbouring ambitions for a top European post in the months after the EP election, he could not afford being seen as having lost the grip on his own party.

Muscat leads one of the few successful political parties in the family of Socialists and Democrats in Europe.

Since being elected leader in 2008, Muscat has won two general elections with emphatic margins, led the PL to victory in two EP elections and obtained absolute majorities in four rounds of local elections. His record is unparalleled in Europe and Muscat will want to repeat this success in the 2019 EP election.

It may not be enough to put him in pole position for the EU’s top posts – Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination will remain a dark cloud hanging over his administration – but electoral success is certainly something Muscat will want to flaunt, especially within the socialist group.

On Sunday, Muscat also gave the direction he would like the PL to follow into the future.

“A movement that governs rather than administers is not Joseph Muscat’s mentality but the mentality of our movement and this is the legacy we leave behind,” the Prime Minister told his supporters.

It was a not so subtle hint on the qualities he would like his successor to have. V18 chairman Jason Micallef, a former PL secretary general, captured the moment succinctly in a Facebook post when he suggested that a successful political leader like Muscat will put in place a succession plan.

“Stupid is he who believes that a prime minister and a politically young leader, who achieved so much for his party and the country, will exit the scene and leave everything behind him without having a plan in the party’s and country’s best interest. Whoever, because of personal ambition, believes otherwise is only showing that he has no idea how these things work,” Micallef wrote.

Muscat sought to focus his party’s efforts to clinch one more electoral victory next year and with party supporters still thirsty for more success, no one will want to appear putting a spanner in the works.

For the time being the leadership race will have to wait.

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