The last decade of the Nationalist Party’s history has been characterised by a steady slide to successive electoral defeats. But the last few months of fractious infighting and squabbles have proved even more dire for the PN.

It is a party led by Adrian Delia, who from the day of his election three years ago has failed to fire the imagination or, indeed, the wholehearted support of all wings of the party.

With accusations of corruption and wrongdoing swirling around him, Delia persistently faced rumblings of discontent among members.  He failed to inspire confidence, as evidenced by successive opinion polls, and scored abysmally in last year’s European Parliament and local council elections.

Whatever came his way, Delia dug his heels and fought on and refused to step down as leader, always insisting it was the party members who elected him and therefore had the right to retain his role come what may. The infighting came to the fore when there was an open declaration of loss of trust through a formal vote by parliamentary colleagues as well as the party executive.

That led to last night’s general council meeting, which potentially paved the way out of the impasse as councillors decided Delia will face a formal leadership challenge. Delia has made it clear he intends to fight until the bitter end, despite the clear evidence by now that he is a noose around the party’s neck. How he intends to continue soldiering on when three core party organs have voted against him is inconceivable.

The PN is bitterly divided between a loyal, mostly conservative core, that still supports him come what may, and on the other side a more centrist faction which sees the writing on the wall.

The PN will now remain in suspended animation for weeks. Although in parliamentary terms this is not significant since parliament is enjoying its summer recess until early October, it is not insubstantial.

It is unhealthy in a liberal democracy for the Labour Party in government to feel it enjoys a free run. With a general election due within 18 months it would be tempting for Robert Abela to call one while he faces a divided opposition led by the unelectable Delia.

Second, there is a risk that the opposition to Delia within the PN will fracture into a number of parts as am­bitious candidates compete among themselves with their eye on his crown. This could lead to the nightmare scenario of Delia winning a fresh leadership election against a divided group.

That outcome would condemn the PN to the wilderness. The electoral consequences would be far-reaching.

Delia would lose the forthcoming election against Abela in a landslide that could potentially out-distance by a massive margin the victories achieved by Joseph Muscat in 2013 and 2017. The scale could be such that the PL would enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament, threatening a constitutional crisis.

Moreover, after all the barbs traded in recent weeks, it would not be inconceivable that the PN would break into two parties, one made up of party activists and MPs loyal to Delia and the other potentially rising from the ashes of those MPs opposed to him today. The PN as we know it would be at risk of disintegration.

The hope must be that those who oppose Delia will unite around one candidate. There is no dearth of good potential candidates to replace him. Whoever is selected to oppose him must begin the process of building bridges and uniting all wings of the party, including those who may have supported Delia three years ago, to ensure parliament has an effective opposition and the country a credible government-in-waiting.

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