Senior figures in the Labour party are becoming increasingly frustrated by revelations about Joseph Muscat and his finances, fearing they will be shackled by their former leader’s actions for as long as they remain in government.
They are also getting increasingly irked by Robert Abela’s apparent reluctance to deal with the issue, though they concede that they do not see a way out for him.
All of this is compounded by fears about how the corruption probe into Muscat will impact the party’s voting base.
Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party is seeking to capitalise on the uncertainty and has reportedly instructed its MPs to make Abela, rather than Muscat, the focus of their criticism of the failed hospitals deal.
Top people within the governing party who spoke to Times of Malta on condition of anonymity voiced fears that the hospitals scandal is destined to hamstring Abela’s administration and sow division within the party.
One source acknowledged that suspicions about Muscat’s financial affairs are legitimate and worried that the party would have to keep taking hits while exercising as much damage control as possible.
Last week’s new revelations continue to give the impression that Muscat was involved in some improper “I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine” financial relationship with Vitals, the source said.
Some cabinet members said they wished Abela would rip off the metaphorical band-aid and allow the party to move on. But they are keenly aware of the implications of that.
“The problem for the party will only go away if Abela dissociates himself from Muscat and publicly condemns the previous administration’s mistakes,” one source said.
“Abela would go down too, of course, because the party grassroots will feel he betrayed Muscat. But it would allow the party to start afresh and two years down the line people would say how great a leader Abela was to take that decision.
Not all is bleak however, as top party sources confirmed there is a hopeful internal wave of approval for the way government is handling its way out of the Steward concession
“But I fully understand why he doesn’t want to go down that path, because it would spell the end of his political career.”
Another talked of the prime minister being “trapped” between his need to move the party forward and fear of upsetting Labour’s grassroots, where Muscat still enjoys significant support.
Another sees Muscat as re-emerging into the public spotlight where he knows he has support in defending himself, as the party finds it increasingly difficult to back him.
Others said that dissociating from Muscat was an unrealistic scenario and expressed sympathy for the prime minister and the quandary he has found himself in.
No real push for Abela to denounce his predecessor
This is confirmed by the lack of any real push for Abela to denounce his predecessor: there are no factions within the party arguing that the prime minister should denounce Muscat, even though a few “would like Abela gone as well,” as one cabinet member put it.
Not all is bleak however, as top party sources confirmed there is a hopeful internal wave of approval for the way government is handling its way out of the Steward concession.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the current administration was unaware of whatever bad decisions were taken during the Muscat era, they said, and that the top brass in the current administration have been vindicated by the latest auditor general report.
The government took over the hospitals in April, has defeated an International Chamber of Commerce Emergency Arbitration proceeding brought by Steward and is inching closer in an attempt to recover mishandled funds from the company, they said.
“The general feeling inside the party is that the original contract was truly dishonest but Abela’s administration has handled it well since he was appointed prime minister, but especially over the past weeks, since the court judgment was delivered in February,” one cabinet member said.
‘It’s tiring and upsetting’
But the Muscat revelations weigh them down nonetheless.
“My colleagues and I put in a lot of hours every day and we are scoring some great results for our country and we are careful to do diligent work, but our work continues to be overshadowed by occasional revelations about the previous administration,” another cabinet member said.
“It’s like we are doomed to carry it with us and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. It’s tiring and upsetting.”
Adding to their concern is Abela’s apparent reluctance to address the issue internally. “Do you know what limbo is? That’s how it is right now. Dead silence. I don’t know anything about anything. I only learn of things from the media,” said one Labour MP.
“It’s the biggest elephant in the room but it’s never discussed,” a cabinet member said, echoing a frustration that several Labour backbench MPs expressed to Times of Malta.
It is unclear whether Abela wants to distance himself or defend the previous administration, one source said. And everyone knows this will not go away but continue to grow.
Muscat’s consultancy payments
Times of Malta reported last week that investigators suspect consultancy payments Muscat received in the months after he resigned as prime minister were intended to hide kickbacks in plain sight.
Of particular interest is €60,000 that Muscat received from companies linked to the failed privatisation of three state hospitals. Those payments were among €500,000 that Muscat earned through various consultancies in 2020, the same year he resigned as prime minister.
Muscat insists the payments were for work unrelated to the hospitals deal and claims he is the victim of a “frame-up”. He has accused Magistrate Gabriella Vella, who is leading a magisterial inquiry, of bias and has started legal proceedings to get her recused.
Labour’s grassroots followed in lock-step. In a Facebook live video posted hours after this week’s Muscat revelations, firebrand and radio host Manuel Cuschieri warned that anyone going after the former prime minister “will have to walk over us first”.
“Dr Muscat, you will never be alone. If they up the ante, we will show them how far we are ready to go to ensure justice,” Cuschieri said.
Those words of warning reflect growing concern within Labour ranks about what to do should Muscat – the man who returned the party to power on the back of record electoral victories – be targeted for prosecution.
“If Muscat is indeed prosecuted, the majority of Labour supporters will blame Abela for not defending him, and that could also ruin him,” one source told Times of Malta.
“Even if he is just arrested and not prosecuted, it would be detrimental enough,” said another.
Meanwhile, the opposition is basking in this precarious situation for Labour, with a number of PN MPs confirming that instructions were given during a meeting last week to turn the guns on Abela, who was a cabinet consultant during Muscat’s tenure and who, as prime minister, continued to funnel millions in funds to Steward, despite knowing the deal was highly questionable.