‘Letting Bernard Grech sink’ is not an option

There is, simply put, more at stake here, than just a case of Bernard Grech fighting for his own survival as party leader

The summer Parliamentary recess, together with the general heat-induced lull in the country, offers the Opposition one last chance of regrouping and rebranding itself before the next general election.

And it is a much-needed opportunity, too: at a time when polls continue to point towards another impending heavy defeat.

Clearly, it is a quandary that the National Party has in part brought onto itself: by ditching former leader Adrian Delia midway through his term, thus making him the first PN leader in history not to lead his own party into a general election.

While the decision was understandable in view of the former’s leader free fall in the polls, it also robbed the PN of the opportunity to truly start afresh after the forthcoming general election.  As Delia would have lost anyway, the incoming leader would have had the opportunity to rebrand the party in his own image, with his authority underlined by the urgency of the task at hand; that of giving the country an alternative government-in-waiting before elections in 2027.

Nor would the party have faced the recriminations of Delia supporters, and the expectations of ‘kingmakers’ who pushed Grech to take over.

Instead, however, the party has opted for a half-baked change.  It has changed its leader; but is unable or unwilling to grant Bernard Grech the authority to present himself to the electorate as a strong leader accompanied by a team of his choice.

One highly symbolic aspect of this necessary change is the replacement of the party’s ineffective deputy leaders.  The problem for the PN is that for statutory reasons (its deputy leaders are elected for a full term by party members), the only way realistic way to bring about this change is for the present deputy leaders to resign of their own free will.

In short this is a test for Grech’s assertiveness as leader.  For if he really wants this change, he should have the personal authority to persuade the present deputy leaders to respect his wishes. The fact that they won’t budge suggests that, like Delia before him, Grech’s leadership is still facing internal challenges.

This creates a quandary for Grech himself: should he choose to force their hand, he would risk further divisions in a party which is still reeling from last year’s divisive leadership contest.  This would be the last thing the party needs   

Yet even if Grech does get his way, it remains questionable whether anyone with future leadership aspirations would be willing to risk a burn-out in the next election: which the party is poised to lose by a considerable margin.

Potential deputy leaders like Roberta Metsola and Joe Giglio – who would be Grech’s choice - may well be weighing their options.  For if they have future ambitions of their own, it may not be in their interest to drive a wedge in the party, which would alienate supporters of the present deputy leaders.

Neither will they be too keen in being associated with what is clearly a doomed election bid: especially if the party fails in narrowing the lead.

Besides: if the change does take place and the party still fails to narrow the gap, Grech would end up taking down with him two persons who may well be in a better position to revive the party after its election defeat.

Ultimately, the PN has to decide whether it wants to go for the next election as a lame duck led by a caretaker leader, who would be forced to resign after failing to narrow the gap; or to play all its cards in one final gamble, and garner all its energies in a bid to narrow the gap, consolidate Grech’s leadership and ensure that the party would start the next legislature as a strong opposition ready to take over in five years’ time.

In this sense, politicians like Metsola and Giglio, amongst others, have a collective responsibility to give their best now to revive the party’s chances.

If, on the other hand, the PN resigns itself to defeat from now… then it may as well have not bothered replacing Delia at all.  Polls are now clearly showing that Grech’s substitution was not enough to reverse the PN’s fortunes.  And in the absence of other internal changes, Grech is looking as ineffectual as Delia, reinforcing the perception that his election was just a stop-gap measure: aimed at ridding the party of Delia, but not intended to last.

The problem, however, is that if the gap between the parties increases, or remains at the same levels of 2013 and 2017, the task will become much harder for any PN leader elected afterwards.

And that may well mean that Labour will be heading for another decade in power.  Therefore, the choices made by the PN are likely to have a strong bearing on whether the country is heading to a one-party democracy, in which alternation of power becomes a thing of the past.

There is, simply put, more at stake here, than just a case of Bernard Grech fighting for his own survival as party leader. Letting him sink is not an option.