Deadly endorsement: why cheeky Muscat congratulates Adrian Delia for his victory

Joseph Muscat knows that whenever by congratulating the PN leader he is only diminishing him in the eyes of a large segment of PN voters

By reinforcing this image through his sweet talk, Muscat is only making the opposition leader’s task harder
By reinforcing this image through his sweet talk, Muscat is only making the opposition leader’s task harder

On Sunday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat congratulated Opposition leader Adrian Delia for “beating [former PN leader] Simon Busuttil” and called on him to get a grip of the party, while also predicting further trouble for the PN.

“It’s like when you’re watching a series and you think everything has passed but then something comes up again and leaves you waiting for the next season,” Muscat said of the PN’s own story arc.

Muscat knows well that by reinforcing the perception that Labour prefers Delia to the “Busuttil faction”, he is touching a raw nerve among a segment of PN voters who actually believe Delia is a Labour Trojan horse. And dispelling this image is one of Delia’s greatest problems.

By reinforcing this image through his sweet-talk, Muscat only makes Delia’s task harder. The insinuation makes it difficult for Delia to strike a balance between holding the government to account without constantly raising the stakes (as his predecessor did on the Egrant affair), and conveying that sense of indignation when it is really needed.

Muscat knows he is far more vulnerable if faced by a moderate but hard-hitting opposition. His gentle endorsement of Delia gives his opponent more rope to hang himself with: Delia must always prove himself with those who fear some sort of Labour collusion with extreme positions, where he is at his worst when angry.

And then it also increases the temptation for Delia to confront Muscat on social issues, which end up splitting his own party base.

So any praise by Muscat just makes it harder for Delia to offer constructive criticism. Muscat knows how difficult it is for Delia to get a “grip of the party”.

Although reinforced by a two-thirds vote in the party’s General Council in his favour, the fact that a third of the party’s councillors want him removed shows that he has a mountain to climb. Delia has to reach out to the political middle-ground, bur then has to keep the party’s more intransigent members on board.

Therefore he has to be both decisive and magnanimous in his victory.

Delia’s greatest mistake would be that of reducing the strife faced in his party to a factional fight between him and the so-called Busuttil faction. In reality, even more crucial is for him to convince a large sector of the electorate who have no nostalgia for the old PN – but who still cannot see the Opposition leader as a prime minister-in-waiting – capable of leading the country’s government.

This part of the electorate cannot yet understand clearly what kind of change the PN can bring about in Malta. It is Delia who has to prove himself through his own actions.