Ministers speak out on Muscat aftermath: 'We felt used and deceived'

Cabinet ministers speak of last days under Muscat and the Schembri spell he fell under

Over and out: Muscat is a puzzle to his former ministers (Photo: James Bianchi)
Over and out: Muscat is a puzzle to his former ministers (Photo: James Bianchi)

Ministers read from the usual playbook when they put out a sign of public solidarity and support for Joseph Muscat’s decision to only leave towards mid-January.

Yet deep down, many of the Cabinet ministers who gathered in Castille in November to deliberate on a pardon for Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind in the Caruana Galizia assassination, today say they are shocked that Muscat did not leave at once.

As the relief of a new Labour administration gives way to clearer minds, one senior minister who opened up to me on the events of the last months said: “Muscat should have resigned that night… it was his only option.”

They now speak of his farewell speech to Labour voters as a moment where their anger caved in to the emotion of the moment, and turned into pity at the fate of the Muscat administration. “We were not enthusiastic about the whole show and the hugging. Most of us felt used and deceived,” the same minister said.

Yet few of Muscat’s disillusioned ministers could muster enough force to convince the PM to bow out immediately during the stormy Cabinet meeting that took place in late November, and instead played along with the former PM’s decision to see out the year and make way for a leadership election.

‘Muscat should have gone immediately’

Most ministers who spoke to MaltaToday could not understand how Muscat could not have been aware of the actions of his chief-of-staff Keith Schembri and the subterfuge which that December night had greeted them with the alleged letter delivered by the Fenech family doctor, with instructions to frame the now former minister Chris Cardona.

“I am starting to believe some of the allegations about Egrant… the ones we rebutted so vehemently in public,” one minister said, pensively considering the events of the last weeks.   

At least two other senior ministers shared a similar sentiment, while saying that they did not believe that Muscat could be part of the alleged assassination plot that has embroiled Keith Schembri. Muscat had after all allowed Schembri to be part of Security Service briefings on the murder investigation, and as revealed by the assassination’s middleman now turned State’s evidence, Melvin Theuma, Schembri is believed to have leaked advance information of the raid on the Degiorgio brothers, who stand accused of executing the car bomb assassination.

“I am starting to believe some of the allegations about Egrant… the ones we rebutted so vehemently in public”

“I don’t believe Muscat is part of the plot. I will not vouch for the other allegations… Keith’s actions are tantamount to treason. But how could Joseph have been so blind? Yorgen Fenech was always at Castille in and out of Schembri’s office and it was well known that he was close to him.”

But one of Muscat’s most faithful ministers said: “I want to stop thinking about it. Has he not suffered his punishment? How sad this is.”

Yet another minister was not too kind about Muscat’s legacy: “In the last year it was all about him and his obsession to replace [EU Council president Donald] Tusk. Everything stopped and decisions stopped being taken.

“What he could not see was that Keith did not want him to leave his post until the inquiries were made public – and these were the magisterial inquiries which would not reveal anything, like the 17 Black investigation, because they won’t get anything out of Dubai. So we were all prisoners of Muscat’s immense success… and it was all about Keith.”

And all ministers who spoke to MaltaToday came down hard on Muscat’s decision to fly off to Dubai on a three-day holiday with his family at the height of the crisis. “It was reckless, it was arrogant, it sent the wrong message. I can’t understand this attitude. It did not look like the Joseph we knew.”

Muscat’s fall from grace came after that fateful Cabinet meeting on the 28 November when ministers were shown a letter reportedly written and prepared by Keith Schembri, and given to Yorgen Fenech by his doctor at his Portomaso apartment while out on police bail.

In the letter, Fenech is instructed as to how to pin the blame of the murder of Caruana Galizia on former economy minister Chris Cardona and two of his cronies.

During the Cabinet meeting, Robert Abela, then an adviser to the Cabinet, had been the most animated – at one point standing up and pointed at Joseph Muscat, telling him that Schembri had screwed him. At a later point, Abela once again informed the Prime Minister that someone had communicated with Keith as to what was being said in Cabinet, because Schembri had phoned his wife Lydia Abela, the PL executive secretary, saying he knows what Robert Abela had said about him.

In that meeting, deputy prime minister Chris Fearne asked that Evarist Bartolo stand in as interim prime minister. But Bartolo vehemently opposed the idea, and Fearne was adamant not to take up the post given that he wanted to contest the Labour leadership election without the burden of the office.

Bartolo had also confided with close aides that Fearne himself was surrounded by many of Keith Schembri’s former advisers, and that Fearne could have secured a deal with then tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, to have a ministry without portfolio: a ‘demotion’ redolent of the post-Panama Papers state for the former energy minister.

Fearne had denied as much in a TV interview, but since that interview other denials by Fearne –  such as not having the publicist and former TVM broadcaster Lou Bondì consulting him – have been challenged by people who were close to the Fearne campaign.