Berlusconi wins vote, but split with 'ally' deepens

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The Independent Online

The tottering government of Silvio Berlusconi yesterday called the bluff of coalition rebels, staging a vote of confidence to force its deeply unpopular €25bn (£20bn) austerity package through the Italian Senate.

But the parliamentary manoeuvre, just hours after the government suffered a third ministerial resignation in two months, did little to disguise the deep rift between the prime minister and his nominal ally and co-founder of the People of Freedom party, Gianfranco Fini.

Nicola Cosentino, the junior economy minister, has been placed under investigation for alleged involvement in a secret society that aimed to corrupt judges for political ends and to smear other politicians.

He denies the charges but resigned on the eve of the crunch vote, accusing Mr Fini of conspiring to oust him in "a not-so-veiled attempt to gain power within the party". Italian media reported yesterday that Mr Berlusconi had sacrificed his ally to appease Mr Fini, but was still in bellicose mood.

"I'll destroy him [Fini]. If he carries on like that, I'll take him to the ballot box," the Prime Minister was quoted as telling his aides by La Stampa newspaper. Other political allies of Mr Berlusconi, including his trusted national party co-ordinator, Denis Verdini, are also under investigation as a result of incriminating wiretaps.

Yesterday, Italian newspapers quoted police sources as saying that the "Caesar" whom the alleged conspirators say is being kept informed of their plans is none other than Mr Berlusconi. The premier has dismissed claims of a subversive Masonic society as "nonsense". But James Walston, a politics professor at the American University in Rome, said: "It could turn out to be a very big deal indeed."

The austerity package, including public sector pay cuts, is expected to be forced through the lower house before the summer recess.