Chris Fearne’s bid to become Labour's next leader has been endorsed by well over half of the party's parliamentary group, making him the clear favourite to succeed Joseph Muscat next month.  

The group of 26 MPs backing Mr Fearne, who currently serves as Health Minister and deputy Prime Minister, includes eight ministers and seven junior ministers.

There are 37 Labour Party MPs in the current parliament, although that number includes Dr Muscat, Mr Fearne himself and Robert Abela, who on Saturday announced he would also be contesting the post. 

Incumbent Dr Muscat is due to step down in January as a result of widespread pressure to resign in the wake of the ongoing Caruana Galizia murder investigation. 

Dr Abela's decision to contest means the January leadership contest is now almost a certainty, to the annoyance of some PL insiders who hoped to have the party unite behind Mr Fearne and turn the contest into a one-horse race.  

That prospect looked possible when Mr Fearne announced his decision to run on Friday, as other leading candidates fell by the wayside. 

MEP Miriam Dalli said on Thursday that she has no intention of contesting, while minister Ian Borg, who was also tipped as a potential replacement to Dr Muscat, quickly said that he was backing Mr Fearne to be Labour’s new leader. 

Who is Fearne counting on? 

Along with Dr Borg, ministers Carmelo Abela, Owen Bonnici, Justyne Caruana, Michael Falzon, Jose Herrera and Edward Zammit Lewis have all publicly welcomed Mr Fearne’s announcement. 

So too have parliamentary secretaries Anthony Agius Decelis, Clint Camilleri, Deo Debattista, Silvio Schembri, Aaron Farrugia, Julia Farrugia Portelli and Clifton Grima. 

Minister Joe Mizzi and parliamentary secretary Chris Agius have privately told Mr Fearne that he has their support, sources told Times of Malta.

Joseph Muscat (right) has said he will quit as Labour leader on January 12 and as Prime Minister in the "days" after that. Photo: Matthew MirabelliJoseph Muscat (right) has said he will quit as Labour leader on January 12 and as Prime Minister in the "days" after that. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Mr Fearne's bid can also count on the backing of Labour's whip Byron Camilleri and MPs such as Glenn Bedingfield, Rosianne Cutajar, Etienne Grech, Silvio Grixti, Manuel Mallia, Silvio Parnis, Anton Refalo and Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.

His district rival Konrad Mizzi, who was relegated to the Labour backbench two weeks ago, has also pledged his support. 

Who has yet to speak out? 

Four ministers, two parliamentary secretaries and two backbenchers have so far kept their own counsel.  

They include senior ministers such as Evarist Bartolo, Chris Cardona, Michael Farrugia and Edward Scicluna, parliamentary secretaries Roderick Galdes and Silvio Schembri as well as MPs Clayton Bartolo and Alex Muscat.

A done deal? 

With so many MPs publicly welcoming Mr Fearne's bid, the odds of Dr Abela making a dent in the leadership race may appear slim. 

Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela have a private word. Photo: Facebook/Robert AbelaJoseph Muscat and Robert Abela have a private word. Photo: Facebook/Robert Abela

But the lawyer knows that it is party delegates and members who will decide who becomes Labour's next leader, not just MPs, and he will be hard at work mobilising the party grassroots in the hope of causing an upset. 

He will also know that his entry into the contest may turn a few heads within the Fearne camp. MPs Aaron Farrugia, Julia Farrugia Portelli and Silvio Parnis, for instance, were all quick to welcome his decision to contest the leadership. 

Not so Glenn Bedingfield, however, who on Saturday reiterated his support for Mr Fearne. 

Even if his bid is unsuccessful, Dr Abela enters the contest knowing that a solid showing will enhance his stature within the party as it prepares to turn over a new leaf. 

When will a new Labour leader be elected?

Candidates keen on replacing Dr Muscat as Labour leader can submit their nominations between Monday and Wednesday.

If more than two candidates apply, a first round of voting open to Labour Party delegates will be held on January 7. 

The two candidates who poll the most votes in that ballot will then face off in a second round of voting on January 11. All PL members will be able to vote in that final round. 

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