Updated 2.40pm

Chris Fearne will remain as deputy leader of the Labour Party, Robert Abela said on Saturday following a meeting of his MPs. 

"Chris Fearne has my absolute trust. Of course he will remain the deputy leader," Abela told reporters in answer to questions as he entered the meeting. 

Abela confirmed that decision as he exited the hour-long meeting, saying Labour's parliamentary group wanted Fearne to stay, and he had agreed to it.

He also said it was still too early to announce who would take Fearne's place as Malta’s nominee for EU commissioner.

The meeting of Labour MPs was called on Friday, shortly after Fearne announced he was resigning as minister and stepping aside as Malta's nominee to the EU Commission. 

The now-former minister is to face charges of fraud in relation to the deal to privatise three state hospitals. He insists he never did anything wrong but thought it was still best to resign. 

Abela did not say whether he has decided who to assign Fearne's ministerial portfolio - EU Funds, Equality, Reform and Social Dialogue - to. But he did indicate that the post of deputy prime minister, which Fearne relinquished on Friday, would remain vacant until after the June 8 MEP elections. The party was now in “full focus” to work for the best election result possible, the prime minister said. 

Chris Fearne speaking to reporters on Saturday. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

PL sources said the party believes it would be best to avoid another internal election before the European elections to avoid any possible animosity. 

The Labour Party has two deputy leaders: one for parliamentary affairs and the other for party matters. Fearne serves as the former, with Daniel Micallef as the latter.  

Labour’s statute does not explicitly provide for a method by which the party’s deputy leaders – who are appointed by the party’s members, not its leader - can be removed from office.

Instead, it notes that the party’s disciplinary commission is empowered to investigate any party member believed to have breached ethics and to make recommendations to the party executive. 

Robert Abela speaks as he enters PL HQ on Saturday. Video: Chris Sant Fournier

Abela: Vote on June 8 is vote for Fearne

Speaking on Saturday, Abela said that the June 8 MEP elections now took on an added importance, linking the two. 

“A strong vote for the PL would also mean a vote of confidence in Chris Fearne,” Abela said. 

It remains unclear what that means. What is clear is that Abela and his MPs could not stress enough how important it was for people to send a strong message in favour of the government come June. 

MPs parrot the party line

Several MPs gave almost identical replies to questions as they entered Saturday's meeting, as if they were reading off a script.

They all said they were there to continue their work for the country and that the people will judge them on election day.

“On June 8 people have an opportunity to give a verdict on the work we’re doing,” Minister Owen Bonnici said. 

“What matters is that as a parliamentary group we are here today to work to give our country a deserved victory, to elect people who truly love our country,” Parliamentary Secretary Andy Ellul said.

Labour MPs sounded similar tunes

Almost all other MPs echoed that sentiment.

A few also said it was not fair that the government was being lambasted for offering “constructive criticism” to the judiciary.

Abela has called the magistrate who led the inquiry into the hospitals deal biased and accused her of being out to damage Labour. Those words have drawn a rebuke from multiple sectors, including President Myriam Spiteri Debono. 

“When the establishment criticises the judiciary it seems that is accepted, but when the government does it, it becomes a storm,” Minister Rodrick Galdes said. 

Minister Byron Camilleri and backbencher Carmelo Abela expressed a very similar sentiment, saying Labour seemed to be judged by a different yardstick to others. 

'What crisis?'

They insisted Fearne's resignation had not plunged the party into crisis. 

“A crisis? Do you think there’s a crisis? We’re tranquil and serene so that on June 8 we give a beautiful result to our country,” Parliamentary Secretary Omar Farrugia said with a smile.

“You are making up the word ‘crisis’. We are completely focused on the work we’re doing for the country,” Owen Bonnici said.

Times of Malta asked Abela why he and his MPs were so insistent on a good electoral showing whenever asked about the current situation.

Did that mean that a big victory for the PL would absolve any wrongdoing that might have been committed?

That is not at all the case, Abela said. 

The inquiry and the election were only being linked together because the “establishment” used the inquiry’s timing to influence the election result, he said.

“That is why the people must send a strong message on June 8, that those tactics go against the people’s sovereignty and should not be allowed to happen,” he said.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the inquiry. That must be decided in court.”

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