Anyone who follows international politics will have observed with keen interest what has been happening in the UK over the last couple of days. One year ahead of going to the polls, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak carried out the second reshuffle of his premiership. What made waves was the appointment of former PM David Cameron as Foreign Secretary. It was, indeed, somewhat extraordinary because very rarely do we see retired heads of Government returning to frontline positions in successive administrations.
This is a significant development that calls for thoughtful analysis, and it provides Malta with the chance to learn from the UK’s political trajectory, given the shared historical connections.
What lead to the reshuffle
Following a week of tensions, Sunak sacked Suella Braverman from the position of Home Secretary. What triggered this dismissal was a statement in an article Braverman wrote in The Times that Downing Street had not approved. Apparently, Downing Street had requested changes to the article which Braverman did not implement.
Now, consider the implications of such a scenario in Malta. Envision a government minister, or even a parliamentarian, being dismissed or asked to resign by the Prime Minister solely for expressing criticism of the government or the PM’s actions. All guns would be blazing. The Prime Minister would be labelled an autocrat, a tyrant, and an enemy of free speech. The Labour Party would be branded as a yes-men haven that tolerates no dissent and shuns debate.
Politics is no place for egos
What struck me most about Cameron’s appointment was the very simple fact that he accepted the role that Sunak offered him. Having served as Prime Minister for six years, Cameron had reached the very top in UK politics. He led the UK through tough economic challenges, ambitious reforms such as the NHS reform in 2012, tricky military interventions such as the Libyan conflict and, obviously, the Brexit referendum, which brought about his resignation. One might argue that any position Cameron could have been offered would be deemed a demotion compared to the top position he had already occupied. Some may argue that David Cameron is not fit for leading the UK’s foreign policy, considering his strong stance against Brexit, now that the UK has exited the European Union. Some may contend that Sunak’s leadership will be eclipsed by the presence of a former Conservative leader and former PM in his Cabinet.
Only time will tell if these predicaments will materialise or not. What is sure is that both Sunak and Cameron have understood that the former PM still has a lot to offer to the country and is probably the profile that fits best for the role of UK Foreign Secretary at this time. All other concerns, all other egocentric thoughts, were put aside.
Now, picture that happening in Malta. Here, the prevailing sentiment is that once you have served as Prime Minister, your political career is effectively over, with nothing left to offer unless, as happened in Eddie Fenech Adami’s case, you are appointed Head of State. The only episode that challenges this perception is Alfred Sant’s remarkable transition into a prominent MEP after serving as Prime Minister for two years and leading the Labour Party for 16 years.
The need for technocrats
As we’re saying, David Cameron was deemed by Sunak to be the most suitable for the role of Foreign Secretary, and the fact that he was no longer a sitting MP was not going to stop the PM from appointing him. Cameron has received life peerage, making him a member of the House of Lords and, hence, eligible to become a senior member of Government. This kind of norm circumvention has also happened here in Malta in the last legislature, with Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana’s co-options to Parliament so that they could be made Cabinet ministers.
In its electoral manifesto for the 2022 general election, the Labour Party committed to a public consultation that will lead to making our electoral system more relevant to modern day Malta. Is it time that Malta considers granting the Prime Minister of the day the facility to appoint up to, let’s say, three unelected Cabinet ministers without needing to exploit loopholes in the system? What options should the Prime Minister have in a situation where the electoral process does not return any Members of Parliament who are fit for a particular Cabinet role that requires a specific skill set? We all know that economists are less popular with the electorate than doctors and lawyers, and our electoral system does favour popularity to a large extent. What happens if an election does not return anyone capable of filling the role of Finance Minister, for example? Technocratic appointments would resolve such situations. Obviously, this is a matter requiring serious debate.
There are other aspects one would need to consider. What should be the optimal number of technocrats to include in a Cabinet? Maintaining a balance between democratically-elected representatives and technocrats is crucial. Should technocrats also be appointed MPs? What is most certain is that any Cabinet member must remain accountable to Parliament. With the next general election just three years away, now is the opportune time to engage in a thorough examination of our electoral system.
Opinion surveys are indicating a widespread sentiment of disenchantment in politics. Considering how much this country has always loved electioneering, this new-found sense of political disconnection underscores the need for a timely and comprehensive review of our electoral system to better align it with the evolving realities of our nation.