[ANALYSIS] The Delia-Busuttil cohabitation still gives the PN an uncertain future

10 key points on how the forced Delia-Busuttil cohabitation spells an uncertain future for the PN and what Delia needs to do to make it better

Better together or forced cohabitation?
Better together or forced cohabitation?

1. Simon Busuttil remains a force to be reckoned with

Adrian Delia over-reached and underestimated Busuttil’s internal strength when he called for his suspension from the PN’s parliamentary group: a solid block of 10 MPs publicly supported the former PN leader.

Delia, who initially reminded Busuttil that “the party is greater than any single individual”, ended up realising this himself, by having to bow to a deal brokered by former party leader Lawrence Gonzi, in spite of the backing of the party’s administrative council. If this ‘deal’ is not translated into a political agreement which puts an end to bickering, the truce risks entrenching the present status quo, belittling Delia and prolonging his agony.

2. The rebels have nowhere else to go

Just as Adrian Delia cannot afford to go down in history as the leader under whose leadership the once glorious party had split, it is doubtful whether this was ever the intention of the rebel MPs.

By signing the deal with Delia the rebels are expected to keep their side of the bargain, that of accepting Adrian Delia’s leadership. Delia’s best hope is that through Simon Busuttil he has bought the peace in the party. If this happens his U-turn would not have been in vain.

Yet this comes with a risk. Busuttil has survived the greatest blow he could possibly receive and survived to wait for other inquiries, which would possibly vindicate him.

3. Lawrence Gonzi may be too close to Busuttil to act as grandee

Simon Busuttil and Lawrence Gonzi
Simon Busuttil and Lawrence Gonzi

Despite being thrashed in the 2013 election, Lawrence Gonzi remains a respected figure who carries the gravitas of a former Prime Minister. He is someone the present leader has to heed. It is not clear whether Delia bowed down to the pressure of numbers or to pressure from the party’s old guard.

But Gonzi may be considered too close to Busuttil, who also served as Gonzi’s deputy leader after being considered the favourite choice in a contest against Tonio Fenech.

4. Former leaders should to be treated with respect but kept at a distance

Delia has practically only managed to reverse his own decision to appoint Busuttil spokesperson for good governance.

This had been ill-advised as former leaders are generally respected, but kept away from formal decision-making. The role of a former party leader should always be a ceremonial one, which sees him operating at a distance inside EU institutions, to mention one example.

By taking over the good governance portfolio Delia now has to clearly define where the party stands on this defining issue for the party, but which needs to be beefed up with bread and butter considerations if the PN is to remain relevant for the average voter.

5. The risk remains that everyone will continue shooting from the hip

By taking over the good governance portfolio Delia needs to clearly define where the party stands on an issue which is still a defining one for party activists but which needs to be beefed up with bread and butter considerations to remain relevant for the average voter

The compromise does not even include a common agreement on a way forward on how the party is going to tackle the good governance issue apart from a reminder that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri still face pending inquiries.

The risk is that everyone will continue shooting from the hip at the common adversary without much consideration for the party’s relevance in society as a whole. Delia cannot afford not to be informed about personal initiatives taken by individual MPs or MEPs.

6. Delia may now blame Busuttil if things go very wrong in MEP elections

Firing randomly in the absence of a common strategy will weaken the party further in the wake of MEP elections. Egrant may take off some pressure from Delia as he has put some of the blame on his party’s declining fortunes on his predecessor, but galvanised by his ability to defy Delia now, Busuttil and his loyalists may feel strong enough to call Delia’s leadership in question after the MEP elections.

Adrian Delia with wife Nickie Vella de Fremeaux
Adrian Delia with wife Nickie Vella de Fremeaux

7. Egrant remains a millstone

Egrant has exposed the overdrive that turned the legitimate good governance call and calls for resignations after Panamagate into an overriding struggle against evil personified by Joseph Muscat.

The conclusions of the inquiry have now turned Egrant into a millstone around the party’s neck. For it suggests that winning partisan points in a desperate election was more important than seeking the truth, with Busuttil seeking a winning card and all too ready to believe anything which fitted into his narrative, even this might not have been his aim.

Unless he is redeemed by other inquiries, Busuttil will be a reminder of Egrant’s every time he opens his mouth.

What is sure now is that Joseph Muscat cannot remain the only objective which keeps the Nationalist Party united. As hinted by Delia in the free verse he posted on Facebook, the party must reclaim the high moral ground by being less focused on attacking single individuals while still upholding principles of accountability. This must be accompanied by higher standards within the PN itself, including its leadership.

8. Delia needs a counter-strategy to Muscat’s blitz

Delia needs a reply to Muscat’s orchestrated strategy to use the Egrant inquiry to whitewash Panamagate and to delegitimise the Opposition by weaponising the Egrant inquiry before publishing it in full.

Delia’s insistence on the publication of the inquiry was justified as the PM now finds himself in the privileged position of deciding the timing of the full publication of the full report, creating a valuable time gap during which political truths can be established.

9. The PN is still defined by its recent past

Despite the legitimacy of being the first party leader to be elected by members, Delia has so far not left an imprint on policy-making.

He needs to change the conversation by getting closer to the concerns of local communities. He has to become bolder in taking positions. For example, he can’t remain silent on issues like the DB group development.

In the absence of policy-making, the PN is still defined by its recent past
In the absence of policy-making, the PN is still defined by its recent past

So far Delia has simply given the party a more conservative imprint, alienating people with centre-left leanings, without even matching this with coherent policies.

And nobody is discussing any policy proposed by Delia. So, inevitably, the party’s identity is still defined by its past.

The party needs a process similar to that undertaken by Louis Galea in the late 1970s when it reinvented itself as a centrist and popular party.

10. Delia needs to reach out for talent

Delia has a big problem: as it stands today the PN increasingly looks like Labour in its KMB days and anti-EU membership era: mediocre and not presentable.

Delia may strike a chord with lower middle class PN voters shunned under Gonzi and Busuttil, but as leader he needs to reach out beyond this constituency, reach out to people like Roberta Metsola and Chris Said, who did not back the rebellion.

Bridging the internal gap may be Delia's biggest challenge
Bridging the internal gap may be Delia's biggest challenge

It is not clear whether the Busuttil faction has an end-game. Individuals like Mario de Marco and Claudio Grech are known to have a mind of their own and they must now decide whether to contribute to the party’s success or not.

Delia may start by co-opting MPs who opposed his move to remove Busuttil but have experience and talent to offer.

He cannot afford to punish the rebels. But he can split them if he opens the doors to those amongst them whom he may possibly trust.

The alternative to this is an even poorer front-bench. One of Delia’s greatest handicaps is the widening talent gap between the two parties. Despite its shortcomings in governance the PL presently has a clear edge in setting the agenda on policy making.