No summer holidays this year
Whether the general election is held in the autumn or early spring, there will no summer holidays this year. Not for the political class, certainly. The fresh din they will raise will join the festa bangs to destroy our quiet. Parliament adjourns this week, freeing our parliamentarians to join other candidates in breathless canvassing for votes.
Throughout the coming double heat the burning question will be, when will the Prime Minister set the election date? I continue to argue that, technically, he will not be in any rush.
If there are parliamentary sittings after the summer it is unlikely that there will be new votes of confidence, or that the three miffed Nationalist backbenchers will vote against the government.
That is not the point that will make up Lawrence Gonzi’s mind. Two main and opposing considerations will be what the opinion surveys are saying, and the Budget for 2013.
So far polled public opinion is telling him that the recovery offensive, kitchen and all, is not working. At least, not as much as expected or desired. It comes from more than one source that Labour is ahead by 10 percentage points among those who declared their voting intentions.
That is far from implying a definite win for Labour. The undeclared voters will decide the elections. But even if one splits them equally to the big parties, the Nationalists seem set to lose. The question the Prime Minister will be considering in this context is whether continued sustained efforts by the government team and the Nationalist Party gurus will make enough inroads to give him a sporting chance if he sets an autumn date.
In that regard he will be guided by Austin Gatt and Richard Cachia Caruana. Dr Gatt will be the one doing the double job, as a minister and as a leading PN campaigner. Mr Cachia Caruana will now have free time on his hands and – boy! – will he use it to prime PN as best as he can. His motivation to defeat Labour, always 100 per cent, will now double.
Whatever his major political advisers tell him, the Prime Minister will have to keep the Budget in mind. If he does not go for an autumn election, his Finance Minister would have to present the Budget for 2013. That would have to be done by around end November.
In that scenario it would probably be a ghost budget which might give the PM nightmares. Fist, there is its content. The Finance Minister would work against a domestic backcloth of lower than forecast GDP growth, higher than predicted national debt, and unfilled promises, such as capping the top income tax rate.
The Finance Minister would not be able to embellish his budget with sweeteners, not without falling into the financially ridiculous. Either way would give untold ammunition to the Opposition to slaughter the government with.
The choice, therefore, will be between unfulfilled expectations and false promises. The external backcloth – continuing austerity in the countries of our main markets – will compound the mix.
Briefly, then, I do not believe that the Prime Minister can afford to present the Budget for 2013, irrespective of the divisions in his own house. Most likely the general election will be called for late autumn, not long after the House of Representatives reconvenes from its notional summer holidays. A few weeks of parliamentary business should carry no fresh risks of embarrassment, and give the Gatt/ Cachia Caruana tandem and ministerial teams massaging people in full swing, that little extra time.
The question then becomes, what will the Labour Party be doing in the process and will there be any surprises to spring from either side? We should know soon enough.