The Malta Independent 24 October 2020, Saturday

TMID Editorial: Labour Party - The first preparations for a general election?

Saturday, 17 October 2020, 08:46 Last update: about 6 days ago

The past week saw some surprise news on the front of the Labour Party and its representation in Parliament.

First, it was widely reported that Prime Minister Robert Abela had turned to MEP Miriam Dalli in order to replace the seat vacated by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and that this was done after backbencher Etienne Grech refused to give his own seat up for the MEP.

Later in the week however, in what was a surprise piece of news, the Labour Party announced in a three-sentence statement that Grech had submitted his resignation as an MP for ‘personal reasons’.  On the same day, it was reported that former Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana would soon follow suit – a news so surprising, that not even Caruana herself was expecting; sources told The Malta Independent that she was caught completely by surprise at the report.

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Caruana indeed has not stepped down, and the situation right now is that the Labour Party has two vacant Parliamentary seats which it needs to fill.

Owing to the fact that neither Stefan Buontempo nor Mark Causon applied for the casual election to take Muscat’s spot, and to the fact that Grech was elected to Parliament through a casual election in 2017, both seats have to be filled by co-option – which essentially means that the party to whom the seat belongs to, in this case Labour, can choose who they want to take the seat.

There are a number of possibilities being mooted for both seats; Dalli remains a very likely option for one of them, and her reluctance to answer calls from the media does indicate that something may be afoot.  Other names have been touted for Grech’s seat – criminal lawyer Andy Ellul, who is known to be PL-leaning to the point that he recently addressed a Labour Party press conference, and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Clyde Caruana have both been mooted, while a couple of people who were candidates in 2017 also, with not much subtlety, put their names forward for consideration as well.

The implications of these changes are interesting.

Firstly, it is clear that Abela wants to fill at least one vacated seat with someone who is a veritable political heavyweight – likely to make up for the loss of three party vote-pullers in the form of Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, and Chris Cardona – which is why he has turned to Miriam Dalli.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that these changes are being made with one eye on the next general election, which is at most just under two years away. 

The election of Bernard Grech and the corresponding boost in support for the PN that recent polls have shown will no doubt have been noticed inside Mile End, and may also have pushed the party into acting to solidify its local support in anticipation of a sterner-than-expected challenge from the PN.

The changes may also be mapped out in such a manner to introduce new blood to the party’s ranks – something the party has already done with the presence of a number of younger MPs who are now Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries – and, at the same time, slowly attempt to disassociate itself with Joseph Muscat’s administration.

Reports of Justyne Caruana’s apparent impending resignation are particularly interesting.  Sources said that Caruana was surprised at the reports, and indeed if they are true it would go against what she said just 10 months ago when resigning from her ministerial role that she would continue to serve in politics.

There is no indication that the report is in any way true; perhaps the news was released with the intention of putting some sort of pressure on Caruana to consider her position.

Another point to come out of these movements is the potential of a Cabinet reshuffle taking place in the near future.

The possibility of this has been mentioned by sources to this newsroom, and it is reasonable to expect that if Miriam Dalli does take on a seat within Parliament, she will not be restricted to being a simple backbencher. 

The question of whose place Dalli would take in that case – unless Abela chooses to add yet another portfolio to what is already the biggest Cabinet in Maltese history – also arises, especially given that it hasn’t even been a year since the Cabinet itself was chosen.

It remains to be seen how exactly the situation pans out, but it is no doubt one which is most interesting and which may ultimately be Labour’s early movements towards a general election which is, even if Labour see out their full term of office this time, not all that far away.

 

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