Blow to Berlusconi as Bossi resigns after stroke

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The Independent Online

The Italian parliament lost its most raucous performer, and Silvio Berlusconi a close though cantankerous ally, when Umberto Bossi announced his resignation yesterday.

The Italian parliament lost its most raucous performer, and Silvio Berlusconi a close though cantankerous ally, when Umberto Bossi announced his resignation yesterday.

Mr Bossi, founder of the separatist Northern League and as Minister for Reforms in Mr Berlusconi's cabinet a tireless advocate of devolution, suffered a devastating stroke in March and is still in hospital.

But a brief radio message to his supporters six weeks ago indicated that he is still fully compos mentis. He is pulling out of Roman politics to take up a seat in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

He will remain leader of the party he founded, and it is reported that one of his lieutenants, Roberto Calderoli, the League's whip in the Senate, will take over his cabinet post.

But Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament, will see him no more, and the expressions of relief and delight, though discreet, will be widespread. Mr Bossi, now 62, entered parliament for the first time as a senator in 1987.

The slogan of his party was "Roma Ladrona", "Big Thief Rome", and he was a one-man barbarian invasion, aiming to tear down what he saw as the cosy and corrupt fabric of Rome-dominated politics and free his countrymen in the hard-working, hard-done-by north to fulfil their potential.

Mr Berlusconi's position has weakened palpably following the lacklustre showing of his party, Forza Italia, in European and regional elections held last month. Coalition allies that fared relatively better have been sharpening their knives and putting pressure on him to change his policies.

The one concrete result - before Mr Bossi's departure - was the forced resignation of Mr Berlusconi's Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, two weeks ago. The coalition wrangling would undoubtedly have been a lot livelier if Mr Bossi had been around to fight his corner. Instead he had to watch impotently from his hospital bed while his friend and ally Mr Tremonti was sent packing.

But it is far from clear that the end of Mr Berlusconi is nigh. His finance minister was replaced by Domenico Siniscalco, a man described as Mr Tremonti's "photocopy". The new Reforms Minister will likewise be a photocopy of Mr Bossi.

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