Berlusconi fights back: 'If they were pretty, where's the harm in that?'

Italian PM says wife's decision to divorce is a trap set by his enemies

Silvio Berlusconi's uncharacteristic silence lasted less than a day. After initially restricting himself to a neutral, carefully worded, one-sentence statement on his wife's decision to start divorce proceedings, the Italian Prime Minister yesterday let fly with both barrels. "I am indignant," he said in a front-page interview with Italy's biggest-selling daily, Corriere della Sera. "Veronica has fallen into a trap. And I know who she is being advised by. Or rather, being incited by."

He rejected her charges point by point. The "showgirls" he wanted to put up as candidates in the upcoming European elections, described by his irate wife as "entertainment for the emperor"? They were "brilliant girls with excellent exam results," he said, "and if they were pretty too, where's the harm in that?"

The visit to 18-year-old Noemi Letizia's birthday party? That was down to arm-twisting by her father, "a friend I have known for a long time". The fact that Noemi calls him Daddy? "It's just a joke, they wanted to call me Grandpa but Daddy is better, don't you think?" Most hurtful of all, Mr Berlusconi said, was Veronica's accusation that he "went around with minors". Reading the reports in Sunday's newspapers in Rome "I flew into a rage". "How can anyone suppose that I would show up at a family home if something sordid was going on? Do they think I'm crazy?" And in the depths of his fury he turned Veronica's famous demand for a public apology after his scurrilous flirting two years ago back on its author. Asked if a reconciliation was possible, Mr Berlusconi replied: "I don't believe so, this time I don't even know if I want it. Veronica would have to apologise to me publicly. And I don't know if that would be enough. This is the third time that she's played a joke like this on me in the middle of an election campaign. It's really over the top."

He told La Stampa newspaper that he had called in the lawyers this time: "To tell the truth, there may even be conditions to sue for defamation, but it's best to leave that alone."

Mr Berlusconi appears to have convinced himself that his wife has been cunningly manipulated by hidden political enemies on the left. Just last Friday, he had declared himself the world's most popular leader, riding high in the opinion polls, enjoying a safe majority in parliament and facing an opposition that had failed to make a dent. Then his wife of 19 years drops the divorce bombshell just weeks before the European elections. "Do you know what I call everything that has happened in the past few days? Media crime," the Italian leader and media magnate said. "Veronica has simply fallen into a media trap. She has given credence to all the inaccurate things in the papers, unfortunately... I believe this is a set-up."

Mr Berlusconi has often described the moment in 1980, when he first clapped eyes on the 24-year-old Veronica Lario, performing topless at a Milan theatre, as love at first sight. He left his first wife for Ms Lario and the couple had three children, before marrying in 1990. But as he moved into politics, she rarely appeared in the supporting First Lady role, and the pair lived in separate apartments.

Mr Berlusconi – now 72 and estimated by Forbes magazine to have a private fortune of £4.4bn – has not exchanged so much as a text message or a telephone call with his 52-year-old wife since war broke out last week. He learned of Veronica's demand for a divorce towards midnight on Saturday when he was alone at his apartment in Palazzo Grazioli in central Rome. As La Repubblica reported it, his trusty lawyer Niccolo Ghedini rang on his secure telephone line. "Veronica has just called me," said Mr Ghedini. "She said she's going to ask for a divorce. She doesn't want to talk to you. She warned that we will read all about it [in the Sunday papers]."

Yesterday Dario Franceschini, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, condemned the Prime Minister's "pathetic" attempt to blame his marital problems on a conspiracy. "Avoid saying pathetic things to try to distract the attention of the Italians," he advised Mr Berlusconi.

While Ms Lario has given no one reason to believe that her decision was the fruit of anything other than long years of neglect and infidelity, that has not prevented hundreds of Mr Berlusconi's opponents from hailing her as the leader they have been yearning for. The opposition is adrift in the polls and desperately short of charismatic leaders. In recent years, Ms Lario has not hesitated to voice her opposition to her husband's policies. And with her unique insider knowledge, she is probably the only figure who might have him running for cover.

Veronica: A political rival for Silvio?

"Veronica is the real opposition leader" – Vittorio Sgarbi, mayor of Salemi and Euro candidate

n "If Veronica asked for my vote she would get it" – Cosimo Piediscalzi on Facebook fan group

You are the only real opposition in this shitty country" – Giuseppe Confalon on Facebook fan group

"You could be our leader, having gone head-to-head with Napoleon!" – Giusy Valenti on Facebook fan group

"Go for it, Veronica! Leave him in his underwear! We are all behind you!" – Gabriella Margherita Bartocci on Facebook fan group

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