MaltaToday’s monthly survey shows Joseph Muscat losing ground and Adrian Delia gaining some. The support of the former still exceeds the support of the latter two to one. But the shift is interesting because the PN over the last weeks made a pitch for xenophobes who would be prepared to change their response in a phone survey when asked which party they would support.

These people will tend to be the blue-collar poor who live in neighbourhoods where most migrants try to set up home. The distinctiveness of their new neighbours is then blamed for the real hardships the poor have to suffer.

Adrian Delia took the smart demagogue’s line of innuendo speaking about the need ‘to do something’ about all the immigrants but stopping short of actually proposing solutions. Then it is up to his henchmen, few as they are, to remove the ambiguity. A few months back the PN forced Justin Schembri to withdraw his openly racist remarks. This time round they didn’t do so.

The PN was faced by a challenge: by not denouncing Justin Schembri they would effectively be endorsing him. They dealt with that challenge by not denouncing Justin Schembri.

That may have had a favourable polling effect. It helped cash some political benefit from the tent village riots and it frustrated the government’s hopes of cashing political benefit from the budget.

But in politics easy pickings easily rot. On election’s eve expect the Labour Party to take a hard line against migrants, take a tough line on a few, helpless sods floating out at sea and force some residents who speak no English onto planes back to the hell they escaped from. With that all those traditionally Labour xenophobes will flock back to vote for their Labour strongman.

In the process of gaining a few dozen temporary sympathisers that it will lose by election day, the PN digs the chasm separating it from its traditional voters deeper and wider than ever.

The PN leadership has split the party’s traditional support in two. At first what separated the two halves was opinion on the suitability and electability of Adrian Delia. As divisive as that matter is, it naturally fades into memory once one day Adrian Delia is no longer party leader. That day may come much later than any of his detractors ever feared but surely even Adrian Delia realises he is not immortal.

But on top of the cleavage dividing supporters from detractors of the party leader, the party leadership is building a barricade that is made of more immanent stuff. The barricade was at first made of silences. It was silent about corruption, silent about free speech outrages, silence about economic diversification, silent about the dismantling of public health services.

Now the barricade is mounted by spoken policies. True, PN policies are few and far between. But the ones that are pronounced mobilise traditional PN support against itself. Migration, the fundamental rights of immigrants, integration policies, humanitarianism: these matters that were never controversial for the PN have now become its political bane.

And the PN leadership is rather short-sightedly upping the ante on these issues. It does that to try to flirt with the inexistent crowds applauding Norman Lowell and to try to get blue-collar Labour racists to switch to the PN as the party “that speaks plainly” about racism. If one were to be callous enough to push aside the ethical implications of this sort of political prostitution, one is still left with the simple reality that this tactic does not work.

There will always be a point where Norman Lowell’s extremism can no longer be matched. You may be fine joining him in bashing black people because like him you think they’re monkeys. But will the PN go down his road when he turns to children with disability, say? For him, black or white they’re still sub-human.

And the PN of all people should see through Joseph Muscat’s soppy talk about respect for racial diversity and inclusiveness. Come the election season he’ll switch back to push backs without so much as blinking.

The PN will gain nothing by lurching to the right. It will, however, convert its separation from those who dislike Adrian Delia into an irrevocable divorce. Without the moderating influence of Catholics and liberals, the hard right in the PN will build walls around the echo chamber of fascist nostalgics, Salvini fetishists and incorrigible racists.

Half of those that voted the PN in 2017 are changing their tune. In number they remain unchanged in response to the Malta Today survey (around 24% of the electorate). But their qualitative motivation is evolving.

In the months leading up to the EP elections these were people who said they would never vote PN while Adrian Delia led it. There was a positive flip side to that response and that was that they were patiently waiting for Adrian Delia to leave so things would go back to normal and they could look forward to the PN taking office with their glad support.

It’s different now. These people are not looking forward to Adrian Delia’s departure. They are becoming indifferent to it. The memories of their support of the PN are fading. The hurt of their separation from it is easing off. They fully expect Adrian Delia to be replaced by some other fascist even worse than Adrian Delia for being more competent or less mealy mouthed at promoting hateful policies.

When they hear Justin Schembri identify Matteo Salvini as his role model and the Lega Nord as the model for the PN they shudder. When that is followed by the tacit agreement of the rest of the PN leadership they resign themselves.

The PN is right about one thing. These 24% will not vote Labour come the next election. They are wrong about another thing. It does not mean they will vote PN. The old threat of ‘would you rather support the Egrant guy’ has worn thin.

Faced by a choice between the corrupt and the incompetent some might prefer the incompetent. But given the populist and racialist rhetoric that has taken precedence, the choice is becoming starker, the chasm wider to leap over, the schism ever more irreparable.

No one likes the fact that this means Labour has succeeded in dividing its opposition. Of course, the change in the fundamental make up of one side of our politics could very well have the effect of bringing about a separation within Labour as well. There are people in the Labour Party who are unhappy the country has been taken over by a corrupt cabal. What might be keeping them from speaking up right now is the perceived advantage they might be giving the PN. The uncomfortable proximity between two parties has silenced controversy and enforced counter-intuitive loyalty for decades. That may change.

In other democracies this is how new parties form. Not the parties that brand splinter groupings that fizzle out once they are superseded by the personality conflicts that cause them. But the parties that last because they are shaped around distinctive ideological solidarity that finds no home in any existing party and must therefore build its own.

Change may be upon us.