Chris Fearne did not show up to watch his leadership rival Robert Abela take the oath of office as Malta's next prime minister.

In a highly-unusual move, the deputy prime minister was absent from the ceremony at Valletta Palace, sources in the room have confirmed.

He arrived at the Auberge de Castille after the ceremony was over, and walked in, to applause from the crowd gathered outside.

It comes amid increasing speculation about the health minister's political future, days after he was defeated in the race to become Labour leader.

He has also not been taking phone calls from his party colleagues.

Speaking after being sworn in as prime minister, Dr Abela reiterated his full confidence in Chris Fearne and said he had no intention of asking him to resign as his deputy. 

Robert Abela speaks to journalists after being sworn in as Malta's 14th prime minister. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

"Absolutely not," he said when asked if he expected Mr Fearne to quit. "I always said I was ready to work with Chris Fearne and I stand by that. I spoke to him earlier on and will see him later."

He also kept his cards close to his chest when asked what his immediate priorities are prime minister were.

Several Labour MPs told Times of Malta that they could not get through to Mr Fearne on Monday and were hearing rumours that he intended to take a step back from frontline politics.

Mr Fearne sent his driver to the health ministry on Monday morning to collect his personal belongings, further fuelling that speculation.

One Labour MP said that Mr Fearne’s staff are worried about their future.

“His staff is saying that he is leaving and that they’re feeling lost,” the MP said.

Mr Fearne said he had no comment to make at this stage. A member of his inner circle however downplayed talk of him leaving.

“Clearing out his office is just the right thing to do, given that the new leader must appoint a new cabinet. Every minister should do it,” they said. “I don’t think Chris has decided what he wants to do yet.”

Dr Abela, who will be sworn in as prime minister on Monday morning, is on the record saying that he considers Mr Fearne to be highly competent and would like to retain him as health minister.

Just last week, Mr Fearne said that he had closed the door on his surgical career once and for all.

Sunday absence

A surgeon who was first elected in 2013 and became party deputy leader in 2017, Mr Fearne could only manage 42.1 per cent of the Labour Party leadership election on Saturday, despite internal polls showing he enjoyed a commanding lead for much of the campaign.

He was conspicuous by his absence during Dr Abela’s maiden speech to Labour Party supporters on Sunday and did not make a direct reference to the new leader in a concession note he posted that morning.

“I promise to remain loyal to the party and its values,” Mr Fearne wrote.

Dr Abela sought to preempt speculation about his rival’s absence on Sunday, saying that Mr Fearne had called him that morning to congratulate him.

But Mr Fearne’s no-show angered Labour Party activists.

“It’s not acceptable. He’s ended up looking like Simon Busuttil,” one senior government source said.

Dr Busuttil, a former Nationalist Party leader, had failed to make an appearance at the national vote counting hall in Naxxar in 2017 when his party lost the general election to Labour and conceded defeat through a televised statement, rather than the customary press conference. 

Another Labour insider who had actively campaigned for Mr Fearne said that his campaign volunteers felt betrayed.

“The loss stings, but we are all part of the same party. He has not handled this well at all,” they noted.

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