Nothing shows how much has changed in the relationship between Robert Abela and Joseph Muscat than the answer Abela gave a few days ago about Muscat’s possible return to politics.
Just over a year ago, Abela was keen to show Muscat was his economic consultant. Now, Abela says, “Muscat resigned his post as prime minister and MP, so his position today is crystal clear”. Abela sought to close a matter that Muscat opened.
The two men were brought together by an alliance of interests. Both men initially needed each other to secure their respective futures. They were assets to each other.
Now, their interests are increasingly in conflict. Muscat continues to need Abela for his peace of mind, but Muscat is becoming more of a liability for Abela. But while Muscat’s push was needed for Abela’s ascendancy, his political survival may require him to cast Muscat off.
That scenario is not immediate. It’s post general election. It’s not a predetermined future. It depends on what court cases reveal, and what squeals we hear from the likes of Konrad Mizzi and Karl Cini, should circumstances dictate that their prosecution cannot be avoided.
Abela is currently coasting towards a general election victory but it will be a bitter-sweet one. Victory will bring problems: the deficit, third term fatigue, voter anger at snouts in the trough when budget cuts begin to hurt.
On all this the Muscat years will cast a shadow, as mounting evidence, national mood and international pressure make it more difficult to avoid further investigations and prosecutions.
Abela is already casting himself as the only politician capable of cleaning up the mess — Muscat’s mess — without destabilising the economy. He is distancing himself from Muscat and, significantly, the Labour base can see it’s electorally necessary.
Post-election, that divergence between Labour and Muscat may yet grow. The Party might yet come to be united around the belief that Muscat has to be dumped — the way it is today united that Keith Schembri, and two former deputy leaders, Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi, had to be dumped.
Now, in pre-election, we are in the grey area of ambivalence. Muscat is still popular but dissent and blame within the Party can also be heard.
The ambivalence was reflected in Abela’s answer about Muscat’s future. Abela himself is not ambivalent. He clearly implied he’d like Muscat’s political career to be over. But he didn’t say so explicitly. He tried to use Muscat’s own behaviour against him.
Abela showed Labour his preference but is aware that it’s too soon to say anything explicit without causing division just before a general election.
Abela knows that cutting loose from Muscat will always cause an explosion within the Party. He’d rather not have it. If he must, then it would have to be a controlled explosion that does not blow up his own career.
It will have to be after the general election, when he has time to heal the Party, and when perhaps the voices within Labour blaming Muscat are louder than the loyal ones.
It would be, after all, the well-thumbed playbook. Abela plays the loyalty card, saying he will defend any of Labour’s men and women against “unreasonable” accusations; but then he lets the accusations mount and seem more “reasonable” over time, until the Party accepts that he must, in Labour’s interests, act.
When Muscat referred to Keith Schembri as “flavour of the month” — meaning it was now fashionable to blame him for everything — he wasn’t referring to a national fad. Nationwide, Schembri has been under suspicion for over five years. Within Labour, however, the dominant narrative now blames him for all that went wrong. It enables the Party to claim to have been just as betrayed as the rest of the country.
Muscat knows that such narratives do not crystallise on their own. He can see that he himself could easily become the “flavour of the month” some time down the road. The early signs are there, with voices like those of Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, Desmond Zammit Marmara, and others.
So Muscat took action. The point of his interview was not to send a message to Abela. Muscat knows that Abela knows that he still is popular within Labour. Besides, if he wanted to send a message to one man, he could have used a backchannel, without the risks of an interview and its embarrassing questions.
He needed to give an interview to reach a mass audience — a Labour audience. It’s the dissenting Labour voices that need reminding he’s not yet the past, and he might yet return to settle accounts.
A Facebook post would have been counterproductive, drawing too much of the wrong kind of attention and throwing doubt on his own Party loyalty. An interview, with a warning casually thrown in when the predictable opportunity arose, was better.
It worked. Within Labour one now comes across rumours of a return by Muscat, as people try to puzzle out how. A lot of speculation is rife, featuring impossible, unlikely or repeat scenarios, such as secret deals between the present and past leaders, or a candidacy at the next MEP elections in 2024.
None of this is realistic, at this point, if only because both men are experienced enough to wait for circumstances to clarify their options. One man tests his grip on the other, who tries to release it, finger by finger.