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Boffa Vs Mintoff: That Time When A Maltese Party Leader Lost A Confidence Vote But Stayed On As Prime Minister

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Adrian Delia’s decision to stay on as Opposition Leader despite losing a vote of confidence in his parliamentary group might seem like an entirely unique scenario to Malta. However, in 1949, the Nationalist Party’s fierce rivals the Labour Party faced its own seismic rift.

Back then Sir Paul Boffa was the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of Malta when his deputy, Dom Mintoff, issued a never before seen challenge to his premiership and successfully remove him as party leader. Boffa would stay on as Prime Minister, but the damage to his political ambitions would be devastating.

After decades of being out in the wilderness, the Labour Party had finally taken control of the government in 1947 with Mintoff appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works and Reconstruction.

Mintoff’s strong position and ambition led to a series of Cabinet crises with Boffa, who clashed in approaches to solving several political and diplomatic relations.

It all came to a head in a 1949 debate over Malta obtaining a share of Marshall aid and how the Labour government would negotiate with the British over it. The Marshall Plan was an American initiative passed in 1948 for foreign aid to Europe following World War II. Malta was a British colony at the time and would have fallen under their funding package.

Mintoff at the time felt Malta was not getting enough money from the British Empire, with the country receiving around $1 million over 10 years despite the billions provided to the British state. The situation further deteriorated when 1,200 shipyard workers were fired over growing expenses.

The then-Deputy Leader Mintoff wanted the issue to go before a referendum, asking the public whether they should bypass the British and go directly to the Americans.

Both Boffa and Mintoff would try to negotiate with the British on the issue. However, there was deep mistrust between the pair, with the latter insisting that the ultimatum of putting it to a referendum not be dropped.

By August 1949, the issue came to head when Boffa travelled to London for negotiation and the cabinet dropped the ultimatum without Mintoff’s knowledge.

Mintoff immediately resigned.

“I know from previous experience that you will be weak, hesitant and will ruin everything. Unless we fight hard, Malta will lose everything. We cannot be afraid of anyone or anything. If you go to London and come to Malta, I will let you negotiate by yourself. I can no longer work with you and will resign when you want,” Mintoff’s resignation letter read.

In September, Labour Party delegates met to discuss a motion to insist on healing the major split between the two leaders. However, in a secret vote, the majority did not agree.

Later in October, Mintoff would hold a confidence vote among delegates over Boffa’s ability to lead the party during upcoming economic and social challenges in a post-war Malta. Mintoff’s motion passed with 244 votes in favour and 141 against.

The entire executive resigned, with Mintoff the only one contesting for the Leadership post.

Boffa, however, decided to stay on, forming the Malta Workers Party while the Labour Party rebranded into the Malta Labour Party.

The Nationalist Party would benefit from the split, gaining the slightest majority over its two competitors, gaining 12 seats to the 11 seats each won by MWP and MLP.

MWP and PN would form a coalition government to gain a significant majority. Even though disagreements in the coalition led to an election in 1950, the two would remain partners for the next legislature.

The MWP would continue haemorrhaging votes for the next few years, winning three seats in the 1953 election before disbanding in 1955. Meanwhile, Mintoff’s new party gathered momentum and would win the 1955 elections, making him the new Prime Minister.

Boffa, despite held in high-esteem among historians, would live the rest of his days in the shadow of the party he helped build. Mintoff would go on to build a political legacy, remaining in parliament until 1998, when his clashes with then-Labour Prime Minister Alfred Sant brought the government to its knees.

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