The rebel group that has challenged Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pulled out of his struggling centre-right government yesterday, heightening prospects of early elections in the coming months.
The EU Affairs Minister Andrea Ronchi, Deputy Industry Minister Adolfo Urso and two undersecretaries loyal to Mr Berlusconi's rival Gianfranco Fini resigned, ratcheting up pressure on the 74 year-old Prime Minister.
"We all agree today that we need to move to a new phase in the Italian centre-right," Mr Urso, a co-ordinator of Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI), the new party created by Mr Fini, said on SkyTG24 television. The departures will not immediately affect Mr Berlusconi's ability to govern but they underline the depth of a drawn-out political crisis that has absorbed the government's attention and energy.
"With the withdrawal of Fini's government members, the betrayal has begun," said Welfare Minister Maurizio Sacconi, a Berlusconi loyalist.
Several possibilities are now open, ranging from a spring election, to the appointment by President Giorgio Napolitano of an interim government which would run business until the next scheduled elections in 2013.
Mr Berlusconi, whose ratings have sunk to their lowest levels since he won power in 2008, has announced a confidence vote in parliament after the 2011 budget is passed – something that is expected by mid-December.
He was due to meet Umberto Bossi, head of his allies in the Northern League, to discuss tactics later yesterday. The future of the government has hung in the balance since the summer when Mr Berlusconi forced Mr Fini and a group of his supporters out of the ruling People of Freedom (PDL) party the two men created in 2008.
Mr Fini, who accuses Mr Berlusconi of running the government like one of the companies in his business empire, has stepped up his attacks following the recent uproar over the Prime Minister's dealings with a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer.