The forthcoming Nationalist Party leadership race has brought a sense of déjà vu. Like Adrian Delia in 2017, a complete newcomer to politics harbouring conservative views will make a pitch for the leadership. Keith Micallef puts the spotlight on Bernard Grech.

A lawyer by profession, the 49-year-old Bernard Grech has always had a keen interest in politics, even if in 1998 he had declined a request to enter the arena by then party leader Eddie Fenech Adami. Grech said he felt he was not yet ready to dedicate so much of his time to politics.

Meanwhile, he kept himself very active in the voluntary sector, including a stint with the Cana Movement when he taught a course in marriage preparation.

He emerged in the public arena in the final few days of the 2011 divorce referendum, when he had campaigned against its introduction. Subsequently, he again declined the opportunity to contest on the PN ticket in the 2017 general election under Simon Busuttil and the 2019 MEP election under Adrian Delia.

However, with the party facing its biggest existential crisis in the post-war era, he feels time is ripe to take the plunge in a bid to resurrect it.

A ‘conservative’ but...

It is still early days, but Grech is very keen to portray himself as somebody with strong views who is nonetheless open to debate with those with diametrically-opposed opinions. He believes that antagonism will only play in Labour’s hands.

While he has no qualms to describe himself as being conservative, he insists there will be room for everybody should he be elected leader.

Abortion is a case in point. While declaring himself against, he has cautioned against burning bridges with those on the other side of the debate, saying it would be a mistake not to engage and hold debate.  Though such stance might sound as opportunistic, history suggests that this was also the approach taken by Eddie Fenech Adami, acknowledged by many as the finest PN leader. Despite being a staunch conservative, Fenech Adami had managed to win over a significant chunk of liberal voters, who played a role to secure Malta’s EU accession in 2004. Bringing back liberals to the fold and ditching the increasingly extremist tag might be a game changer.

In this respect, Grech has acknowledged that he has changed position on the issue of divorce, while insisting his objection was against certain clauses of the law.

Restoring the moral authority of the leadership is not tantamount to censoring critics

“I could be conservative at heart but not in thought. I am ready to discuss and change positions according to what is best for people and for the country,” Grech told Times of Malta.

However, the leadership hopeful could be walking on thin ice, as Busuttil’s attempt to walk down this avenue on the issues like gay marriages and adoptions had fuelled internal rifts, backfiring in the public domain.

What does Grech stand for?

While the tesserati might already have a clear idea on who they will be voting for, the rest of the electorate who have been craving a strong opposition are still unsure what he stands for.

Grech will be launching his manifesto once the campaign proper is under way as soon as the due diligence process is over.

Yet, his manifesto will probably have more core principles than tangible proposals.

Evidence so far suggests that, for the time being, Grech will be pitching his campaign exclusively to the party members.

“Focusing on the wider electorate, as deputy prime minister Chris Fearne did in the Labour leadership campaign, would be a mistake as the party members are the king makers,” sources close to his campaign team insisted.

‘Unity, dialogue’ – just another slogan?

Grech’s remarks that under Delia the PN became more fragmented and his criticism that the incumbent missed opportunities to unite the party was seen by some as inconsistent with his ‘unity’ motto.

Yet, time is still on his side to walk the talk. Grech has gone on record saying Delia could be part of the solution.

Restoring the moral authority of the leadership is not tantamount to censoring your critics, Grech is insisting.

Though Grech has been harping that there has been no backroom deal behind his nomination, it is an open secret that the decision was the result of a compromise by the rebel MPs coupled with political strategy – the bigger the number of candidates, the less chance of ousting Delia.

The very fact that MP Therese Comodini Cachia and MEP Roberta Metsola issued a public statement saying they were not throwing their name in the hat was significant in itself.

With the general election less than two years away, possibly even closer, questions have been raised whether Grech will be just a means to an end. In football terms there have been suggestions he would be a caretaker manager for the rest of the season (legislature).

As expected, these suggestions have been shrugged off by Grech who is insisting that if elected, he would be in it for the long haul. In reality, it will be up to the electorate to decide.  Should he succeed to start narrowing the gap even by modest margins, he could well be the man who may bring the party back in business.

Contrary to his two predecessors, circumstances could be on his side amid the first signs of fatigue within the governing Labour Party, public sentiment to restore Malta’s reputation and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak.

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