Updated | Konrad Mizzi sounds out leadership bid with Labour delegates

The Tourism Minister told delegates he is considering running for leader

Konrad Mizzi - the tourism minister happens to be one of Labour's most popular MPs despite the Panama Papers scandal
Konrad Mizzi - the tourism minister happens to be one of Labour's most popular MPs despite the Panama Papers scandal

The Labour minister whose name is indelibly linked to the Panama Papers scandal, has been in a blitzkrieg campaign over the past four days, sounding out support for a possible party leadership bid.

Various Labour delegates as well as MPs told MaltaToday that delegates were personally approached by Konrad Mizzi, expressing surprise that Mizzi was toying with a leadership bid.

Aides inside the Office of the Prime Minister, who knew of the meetings with several delegates, expressed disbelief at news that Mizzi was considering a leadership run.

Mizzi also held a meeting with Gozo’s kingmaker delegate Guza Cassar, in which he discussed his chances for the leadership.

Various ministers and MPs contacted by MaltaToday confirmed that they had been informed of Mizzi’s ambitions by other party delegates. “Konrad Mizzi is respected as a capable minister but all delegates know that he can never head a Labour party in a general election. He is scarred for life, his wounds are too deep,” one insider said of the Panama Papers scandal that embroiled him.

The surprise move comes in the wake of the most recent statements by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat that this is his last term in office, which has served as a starting pistol shot for a silent leadership race by main contenders. 

In a MaltaToday survey held two weeks ago, Konrad Mizzi was ranked the third most popular minister with Maltese voters, right behind deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne. However, Mizzi was the second most popular minister with Labour voters alone, right behind transport minister Ian Borg, and surpassing Fearne, who happens to be Mizzi’s district rival.

Popular though he may be with Labourites, in 2016 Mizzi’s name appeared in the scandalous Panama Papers which precipitated the Labour administration in a fierce political battle. Mizzi and Muscat’s chief-of-staff Keith Schembri, were found to have set up offshore companies in Panama and trusts in New Zealand, with leaked emails showing the companies would be used to collect monies from undisclosed sources. Years later, it emerged that the companies were connected to another mysterious offshore company in Dubai, 17 Black – reportedly owned by one of the shareholders in the Electrogas power plant, Yorgen Fenech – and identified as a “target client” of the Panama firms.

Indeed, one delegate pointed out that Mizzi’s interest in the race would only attract adverse media attention to the Panama Papers. “None of the delegates believe that Mizzi can win this election. And in recent days he has made it too obvious.”

That scandal forced Mizzi’s resignation as Labour deputy leader for party affairs, but despite tarnishing his name he was soundly re-elected on the fourth district, only this time outperformed by Chris Fearne who is himself planning to run for Labour leader.

While Labour’s leadership race is yet to materialise, unofficially the contest is being played out already. The contenders for the race already appear ready to go: transport minister Ian Borg, who has emerged as a favourite among MaltaToday survey respondents, is one such contender; the others are Chris Fearne, the Labour deputy leader, and Cabinet advisor Robert Abela, as well as Labour’s most popular MEP, Miriam Dalli.

The likelihood of Joseph Muscat exiting the scene this year is highly dubious and close aides have all confirmed that mid-2020 is the more likely date. That, in itself, is no guarantee: Muscat has been known to map out various strategies before making his move, such as making sure the party has a leader that can take Labour into a third term of government.

What is clear is that Muscat might not leave unless he has an opportunity that befits his exit as Premier.

It is an open secret that Muscat harbours an ambition to take up a top European post, such as that of European Council president – currently occupied by Donald Tusk – and EU foreign policy chief – occupied by Federica Mogherini. Both will be up for grabs in the second half of 2019. Getting there though does not depend solely on Muscat’s will, and much depends on what influence the socialists will have in the coming elections… which might not be much. A weakened socialist grouping will do the Prime Minister no favours, although Muscat remains the most successful social democrat in government.

Muscat faces flak over the decision to keep Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in office despite their involvement in the Panama Papers scandal. Panama and 17 Black remain black marks on Muscat’s record – more grist for the mill of his Brussels critics.

Mizzi denies ever meeting Prime Minister regarding leadership bid

In a post on Twitter Sunday morning, Mizzi denied ever having met with Joseph Muscat to discuss a leadership bid. 

Mizzi was reacting to reports in the Sunday Times of Malta, where it was claimed that he had been involved in a heated meeting with the Prime Minister, during which he was urged not to contest any future leadership positions.

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