Updated 12.25am

Bernard Grech looked towards the road ahead in his first comments as the newly-elected Nationalist Party leader on Saturday night, pledging to mend the divisions in the party and prepare it to face the next election as an alternative government. 

"This is not the end of the road but a starting point," he said in a victory speech at PN headquarters in Pieta’. 

Grech made reference to the scale of his victory in the race against Adrian Delia, saying this instilled a greater sense of responsibility in him. He said he had already begun reaching out to MPs who had supported Delia, as well as those party members who had not voted for him, to begin gaining their trust. 

He insisted that Delia would have a role in his shadow cabinet and encouraged deputy leaders Robert Arrigo and David Agius (whose positions are protected by the party statute) to remain in their posts. 

Grech also shot down the Labour Party's characterisation of him as the choice of the "PN establishment". 

"I am the choice of nearly 70 per cent of PN members who democratically voted for me," he said when asked by journalists. "I have never liked labels, and this sort of talk is only intended to create trouble. I don't need the advice of the Labour Party; they aren't the ones who put me here."

He insisted that under his leadership, the party would be in a stronger place to fight the next election, but warned that the Prime Minister may attempt to rush to the polls to shore up the administration. 

"It would be shameful if Robert Abela were to rush to an election when the country is facing shockwaves from the pandemic, and when people and businesses are suffering. I urge him to make the correct decisions for the stability of the country."

The new leader said the larger number of members who voted in this election, compared to the last, was an encouraging sign about the strength of the party. He cautioned against reading too far into the 15 per cent - around 3,000 - who did not vote: his own parents, he said, were unable to do so due to COVID-19 precautions.

He urged party members to reach out to anyone who felt pushed away by events within the party. "The unity I am looking for is one that includes everyone and excludes nobody". 

Bernard Grech speaks at PN HQ. Video: Matthew Xuereb

Appeal to party unity

Earlier, in an impromptu speech to campaign team members and colleagues, Grech made an appeal to party unity and acknowledged his own imperfections.

“There are people that I had a lot of faith in and that I chose, and others that I did not have faith in and who asked me to trust them. All these people came together into one team: a victorious team,” Grech said. 

Votes in the leadership race between himself and incumbent Adrian Delia were still being counted when Grech spoke shortly before 9pm, but his victory had already been confirmed by Delia, who conceded defeat earlier.

Grech, a lawyer who has never occupied a political office before, gained popularity through regular appearances on television in which he defended the PN’s position during political discussions. 

He was brought into the party’s official structures by Delia, who has said he wanted Grech to run as a PN candidate in the next general election. 

In a Facebook post on Saturday night, Grech said he was certain Delia would “continue to play his part to the benefit of the party from now on forward”. 

'I'm not perfect'

Grech emerged as a unity candidate for those within the party who had tired of Delia’s leadership, seeing off early frontrunners such as MP Therese Comodini Cachia, who eventually backed him. 

So too did many other of the party’s MPs, as well as heavyweights such as former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, and polls suggested he led Delia from the outset. 

His image took a knock following revelations about his less-than-impeccable record with the taxman, and on Saturday night he alluded to those failings, saying “I’m not perfect”. 

“Nobody is perfect, but the people don't want perfection, they want genuineness,” he said. 

“They want us to pay attention and to tell the truth.”

Grech said the party now had to “ensure that the Nationalist Party can once again become the natural party of the Maltese people.”

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