Inside Labour: Thwarted plans and the road ahead

After missing out on a top EU job, Joseph Muscat’s departure from politics has been postponed to an unknown date. MaltaToday tries to understand what happens next

Joseph Muscat: Staying on, but for how long?
Joseph Muscat: Staying on, but for how long?

Joseph Muscat’s plan to land a top job in Brussels was thwarted last week and with it the ambitions of those wanting to take his job in Malta.

A top EU job would have imposed a deadline on Muscat’s premiership, forcing a race for leadership of the Labour Party in the last three months of the year.

But all that will now have to wait. With no European deadline, Muscat can choose when to go, if at all.

Leadership hopefuls Chris Fearne and Miriam Dalli were quick to tweet on the same evening that European leaders finally agreed on the top jobs, urging Muscat to stay on for “many more years”.

People close to the Prime Minister have suggested that Muscat may very well stay on until the next general election.

After leading another formidable election campaign in May, Muscat appeared to have loosened his grip on the reins of government. He now returns with more vigour, close aides suggest.

A feeling of inertia

Jolted into action: After a third building collapsed in two months Joseph Muscat took the bull by the horns and pushed for tougher rules on excavation work
Jolted into action: After a third building collapsed in two months Joseph Muscat took the bull by the horns and pushed for tougher rules on excavation work

With the Prime Minister caught up in the Brussels euphoria, the past month was characterised by the risk of inertia settling in, sources in government told MaltaToday.

Certain decisions were being postponed and potential contenders for the post, like Ian Borg and Konrad Mizzi, were quietly in full campaign mode, while Chris Fearne basked in his extended role as acting prime minister.

The situation was jolted when a third building partially collapsed last month as a result of ongoing construction work next door. The incident shocked the country.

Muscat stepped in front and ordered an immediate halt to excavation and demolition work, as he pushed for a rapid change in construction regulations.

The Prime Minister took the lead but his actions were pretty much dictated by the inevitability of doing something in the face of a construction emergency.

The strong action miffed architects, and construction workers were left in the lurch as building sites ground to a halt.

All this happened when Borg was abroad. The minister was left to pick up the pieces as the new construction rules had to be explained and fine-tuned in the days that followed.

Pilot trouble: Tension brewed at Air Malta
Pilot trouble: Tension brewed at Air Malta

And as tensions brewed at Air Malta, Muscat was conspicuous by his absence, leaving Konrad Mizzi to call the shots and go on the warpath against pilots.

Muscat’s relaxation also saw Labour Party Deputy Leader Chris Cardona go ahead with a parliamentary resolution giving the Dragonara casino operators a lucrative 64-year lease extension without a competitive tender.

The extension went unopposed in Parliament with the Opposition voting in favour.

But sources said not everyone in government was happy at Cardona’s rushed approach on the matter at a time when Muscat was caught up in Brussels with other European leaders.

The Dragonara decision caught everyone by surprise and fuelled anger among industry players that were expecting the government to hold a competitive process.

After the turmoil in the construction industry – which was justified on the basis of public safety – the last thing Muscat’s government wanted was friction in the gaming sector.

Back in charge but for how long?

The Prime Minister pledged before the last general election that it would be his last at the helm of the Labour Party
The Prime Minister pledged before the last general election that it would be his last at the helm of the Labour Party

Muscat is likely to get solidly in the driving seat now that his European ambitions have been dashed but the question hovers on how long he will keep his foot on the accelerator.

A day after the EU decision, Muscat was in Czechia for an official visit and replied in no uncertain terms when asked about his future: “I will continue my job as Prime Minister with more vigour.”

For the time being, it appears that the exit door has been shut.

The Prime Minister pledged before the last general election that it would be his last at the helm of the Labour Party. That promise contradicted Muscat’s earlier belief that he should stay on for 15 years – five years in Opposition and 10 years in government.

Muscat has only been prime minister for six years and if numbers are anything to go by, he will still have one more year to go if the next general election is held in 2022.

Many within the party do not want him to leave. An initiative to collect signatures asking Muscat to remain was started earlier this year by party veterans Manuel Cuschieri, Ġuża Cassar and former GWU secretary general, Tony Zarb.

“The petition is not dead,” Zarb assured MaltaToday, adding the campaign to collect signatures will be intensified.

Doing a Fenech Adami

Doing a Fenech Adami: Joseph Muscat can opt to contest the next general election and then leave shortly afterwards
Doing a Fenech Adami: Joseph Muscat can opt to contest the next general election and then leave shortly afterwards

Muscat may yet decide to contest the next general election and leave some time after, like Eddie Fenech Adami did.

The former Nationalist Party leader won the 2003 election and resigned in 2004 to be succeeded by Lawrence Gonzi. Tony Blair did the same in the UK after winning his third election.

However, a possibility that has been floated within Labour circles is Muscat staying on as prime minister until the end of the legislature but making way for a new party leader.

This arrangement will split the roles of party leader and prime minister, something untested in Maltese political history.

The closest the country came to this was in 1977 when Fenech Adami was elected leader designate of the PN while Ġorġ Borg Olivier remained at the helm until 1978. This arrangement had been proposed by Borg Olivier himself after sensing a movement within the party that wanted him out after the 1976 election defeat.

Labour insiders do not exclude Muscat making way for a new party leader to ensure an orderly succession process while he retains a grip on the government.

Both these options ensure Muscat will deliver on promised reforms that appear to have slowed down such as the legalisation of cannabis for recreational purposes and further changes to the law regulating IVF.

There are also electoral pledges to be fulfilled such as the reduction of tax on part-time work to 10%, the gradual reduction of tax on overtime, the construction of a motorsport racing track and a road tunnel to Gozo.

Muscat’s close aides say that he will now push his ministers to up their game.

But the Prime Minister may yet decide to simply pack up his bags and call it a day. This remains a possibility despite Muscat’s latest statement.

Next year will be the ideal time to exit if the successor is to have enough time to assert themselves in the party and the government well ahead of the next election. Anything beyond 2020 would give Muscat’s successor a problematic start.

After Karmenu Vella, who?

Immediate decision: The Prime Minister will have to propose Malta's next European Commissioner and Helena Dalli appears to be in pole position
Immediate decision: The Prime Minister will have to propose Malta's next European Commissioner and Helena Dalli appears to be in pole position

A more immediate decision will be the nomination of Malta’s next European Commissioner to succeed Karmenu Vella.

Sources close to the Prime Minister rule out the option that Muscat could nominate himself.

The name making the rounds is that of Equality Minister Helena Dalli, who has started taking French lessons and people close to her have been doing the preliminary rounds in Brussels.

Dalli could be the least controversial of nominations and being a woman would fall squarely within the context of a European effort to seek gender balance. She will face some uncomfortable questions about Malta’s handling of Panama Papers and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia but her track record on equality will not be overlooked.

Muscat may also opt for maximum safety by re-nominating Vella but the outgoing commissioner may not have the appetite for another five-year term.

Dalli’s departure would create a Cabinet vacancy.

Cabinet reshuffle: The Prime Minister can stick to his tradition and be surgical by simply replacing Helena Dalli, or re-assert himself and opt for an overhaul of ministerial portfolios
Cabinet reshuffle: The Prime Minister can stick to his tradition and be surgical by simply replacing Helena Dalli, or re-assert himself and opt for an overhaul of ministerial portfolios

Muscat’s tradition since 2014, when he conducted the last major Cabinet reshuffle, has been to go for minimal disturbance. On those occasions when ministerial posts became vacant, Muscat simply went for the option that least ruffled feathers.

Muscat can elevate parliamentary secretary Aaron Farrugia – he has worked in Dalli’s ministry since 2017 – to minister and appoint a new parliamentary secretary in his stead. Upstarts such as Rosianne Cutajar and Byron Camilleri could be considered for a parliamentary secretary job.

Muscat may also appoint his old-time friend, Edward Zammit Lewis, as minister. It is an open secret that Zammit Lewis harbours the ambition of returning to Cabinet after missing out in 2017 when he only made it to Parliament through a casual election.

But given the Prime Minister’s current state of mind, sources within the PL have not excluded a major overhaul in ministerial portfolios.

Muscat may want to use a reshuffle to assert himself on the government with renewed vigour and jolt ministers into concentrating on their job.

Brakes on leadership ambitions

Applying the brakes: Leadership contenders like Chris Fearne will, for the time being, apply the breaks
Applying the brakes: Leadership contenders like Chris Fearne will, for the time being, apply the breaks

As the summer months set in PL leadership contenders will apply the brakes on their individual campaigns, not wanting to be seen as pushing Muscat out.

Ian Borg, Chris Fearne and Konrad Mizzi will use the extra time to focus on their respective ministries and deliver on promised projects.

Time could work in their advantage.

They will also continue to try and woo delegates but the approach will be subtler lest Muscat decides to stay on for the whole legislature.

After her stellar performance in the European election, Miriam Dalli will be consolidating her standing in Brussels, now as a senior official within the Socialists and Democrats.

Dark horse: Robert Abela is likely to use this time to gauge party delegates
Dark horse: Robert Abela is likely to use this time to gauge party delegates

Robert Abela will remain the dark horse in the race but he is likely to use this time to gauge party delegates.

An important factor that could eventually condition the PL leadership race is what happens inside the Nationalist Party. PL sources say that if Adrian Delia loses his grip on the PN and is replaced, some of the Labour leadership contenders could re-evaluate their position based on who their new adversary may be.

What could have been a red-hot summer for the PL has turned out to be a less stressful period.

However, whether summer will be business-as-usual depends on the vigour Muscat would like to inject and how far he is ready to go to cut uncertainty and map out an exit strategy.

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