Silvio Berlusconi’s long goodbye

Silvio Berlusconi attends a vote of confidence in the government
Image caption Silvio Berlusconi had needed to show he was in control of his party

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's sudden U-turn over a vote of confidence shows he no longer has an iron grip on his party, but can the loyalty he inspires keep his influence alive?

It has been a helter-skelter week in Italian politics as Silvio Berlusconi tried to re-establish his undisputed leadership over the centre-right and to protect himself from the effects of his August conviction for fraud and tax evasion.

Last week, he told Italians he and his party were leaving Prime Minister Enrico Letta's coalition government and would vote against him in any confidence vote.

Then, on Wednesday morning, he made a dramatic U-turn.

After delivering a searing criticism of the prime minister and the government's action, he ended his speech by saying a stable government was necessary and that he and his People of Freedom party (PdL) would support Mr Letta in the confidence vote.

Since the difference between confidence and no confidence in Italian is one letter - fiducia/sfiducia - many were left wondering what they had heard. Shortly afterwards as the senators voted in alphabetical order, Mr Berlusconi was one of the first to give his support to Mr Letta.

Bitter reminder

For most of last week, Mr Berlusconi, his hardline supporters in parliament and his newspaper and television channels had been sharply criticising Mr Letta and his government.

The reason was his desperation at the prospect of being expelled from the Senate, a process which starts next week and will almost certainly end by mid-October.

Expulsion will be a blow to his prestige and a bitter reminder that he is a convicted criminal. More importantly, it will leave him open to the possibility of arrest in some of the ongoing trials against him as he loses the protection afforded to parliamentarians.

Mr Berlusconi needed to show his control of the party and his power to bring the government down and call snap elections.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSilvio Berlusconi: "We have decided, not without internal travail, to express a vote of confidence in this government"

Recently he seemed to show his usual dominance of his party, making decisions without any reference to party members.

Then on Wednesday he announced that all the parliamentarians would be resigning - again, with no discussion in the party. To make matters worse, this was while Mr Letta was trying to present Italy as a stable and reliable country to the United Nations and potential foreign investors.

When Mr Letta returned, he and the cabinet suspended action in order to confirm that they really did have the support of parliament.

Public doubts

On Saturday, Mr Berlusconi upped the stakes by ordering the five PdL cabinet ministers to resign which they promptly did, writing "irrevocable" letters of resignation.

Superficially, it looked as if this was the same old Mr Berlusconi - boss and owner of the PdL just as he is the owner of AC Milan football club. Nowhere else in Europe could a party leader demand such loyalty from ministers and parliamentarians.

It looked too good to be true and so it was.

On Sunday, three of the ministers publicly expressed their doubts over the wisdom of resigning and said that Mr Berlusconi had been "ill-advised" by the hardline, "hawkish" wing of the party.

Then Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister, PdL's party secretary and a protege of Mr Berlusconi began to break rank. By Sunday, he was showing independence and it was evident that there was a significant number of dissidents in the PdL.

Still, on Monday, at a meeting of PdL parliamentarians, Mr Berlusconi explained, without debate, that they would be voting against the government.

But the following day, it was clear that enough senators would go against Mr Berlusconi and support the government.

In the Senate, the PdL group left the chamber during the debate in order to decide what to do. There was an increasing flow against Mr Berlusconi and at the last minute, he decided that his best tactic was to change.

Fierce loyalty

With this U-turn, he hopes to be able to regain control of the PdL and stop a split within the party. In reality he has only papered over a major fissure, and the paper will tear in a matter of days or weeks.

But even with clipped wings, he will still have influence. More than seven million Italians voted for his party in February. He has huge financial resources at his disposal and fierce loyalty from a good portion of his supporters.

He is down but not yet out.

Mr Letta, meanwhile, has come out of the fray greatly strengthened in personal prestige.

He has shown calm and resolve over the past week, never wavering in purpose and unwilling to make compromises over Mr Berlusconi's judicial problems. For the time being at least, his success has ended any discussion over the leadership of his own Democratic Party.

His coalition is also stronger than before the confidence vote but it is still by no means certain that it will last until its target of spring 2015.

The PdL support could turn out to be a poisoned chalice, so unless Mr Letta manages to win the support of a new centre-right group - out of Mr Berlusconi's control - when (not if) the next crisis hits, he might find himself going through the whole business again.

In an interview, he said that he felt he was living through "Groundhog Day". Even after Wednesday's success, that must still be his nightmare.

For their part, the sighs of relief from President Giorgio Napolitano and the European partners were audible across the continent now that Italy will continue to be able to service its debt, pass a budget and begin to approach the deep-seated economic problems.