Is this one scandal too many for Silvio Berlusconi?

For years the Italian prime minister has seemed bulletproof. But, as Michael Day reports, his political rivals are now scenting blood
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The Independent Online

The Catholic church-backed National Conference for the Family began in Milan yesterday – with one noticeable absence. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had been due to open proceedings, was bumped from the schedule by officials who realised it would be like having Attila the Hun introducing a peace conference.

Donatella Ceralli of CIAI, the Children and young people's charity, put it bluntly: "Without Berlusconi the atmosphere will be a lot calmer".

The premier probably can't remember what calm feels like. Ever alert to the threat of prosecution on corruption charges, steeling himself for a cataclysmically messy divorce and humiliated on a daily basis by the endless string of sex revelations, it's a wonder he hasn't already fled the country.

The tale of Ruby – or Karima el- Mahroug – the 17-year-old belly dancer who received €7,000 (£6,000) and jewellery at two of the premier's parties, kicked off the current media feeding frenzy on Mr Berlusconi's exploits.

But if the Prime Minister looks back at one event that unleashed the torrent of allegations it is probably the unfortunate decision in May 2009 to attend the birthday of 18-year-old underwear model Noemi Letizia. We learnt that she called him "daddy". His wife of nearly 20 years, Veronica Lario, accused him of "consorting with minors". His suggested predilection for girls young enough to be his grandchildren brought a new sense of grubbiness to the story.

Drugs figured once again in the very latest reports – from TV showgirl Nadia Macri – of dope-smoking on Mr Berlusconi's private jet. She also provided her "personal services" to the premier at €10,000 a time in Sardinia last year and at his home near Milan this April.

There were even suspicions of sympathy for Mr Berlusconi when, in June last year, the taped recordings of his pillow talk with call girl Patrizia D'Addario came to light. The sense that someone he had treated well had returned the favour by biting him, was amplified when Ms D'Addario followed up the tapes with a toe-curling kiss-and-tell book. Mr Berlusconi was probably, as critics noted at the time, able to take comfort from Ms D'Addario's generous description of his staying power. But, in addition, to Olympian-level sexual stamina, Mr Berlusconi is also capable of monumental front. We saw it on Friday when he announced – without batting an eyelid – that he was going to outlaw street prostitution.

Centre-right rival Gianfranco Fini yesterday spoke of the "moral decay" caused by a "loss of decorum and rigour in the behaviour of those who, as public figures, should set an example".

But Mr Berlusconi's response, "if you don't like it, do something about it," was born of a Prime Minister who knows that the opposition is even weaker than him. If Mr Fini withdraws his parliamentary support and precipitates an election now, he'll get the blame for the bringing risky political uncertainty to weigh on Italy's faltering economy.

The press (at least the section not owned by Berlusconi) and opposition politicians might take comfort from seeing the septuagenarian mogul squirm. But nobody believes that more allegations about his tawdry sex life will cause the government to fall.

How could they be? If abuse-of-power allegations and on-the-hoof legislation to protect himself from prosecution – and to nurture his business interests – haven't been enough to force him out, a sex scandal is unlikely to do so.

Cultural commentators often claim that many ordinary people admire Mr Berlusconi for his machismo. That's not hard to believe. Readers of The Sun were last week posting comments such as "I wish he was our Prime Minister" on the tabloid's website.

The pundits are missing the point. Mr Berlusconi is unpopular. People are sufficiently repelled by his antics and the failure of his government to improve their lives that his rating has fallen below 30 per cent for the first time.

Nichi Vendola, the rising start of Italy's left, said during a political rally in Milan at the weekend, that that he was willing to work with the centre-left Democratic Party to offer a viable alternative to Mr Berlusconi.

A new centre-left coalition might start preparations for the general election, which is likely in the New Year, by keeping in mind the phrase used by that libidinous star of American politics, Bill Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid".

Some critics have claimed that Mr Berlusconi has, ever since he entered politics, appealed to many voters by tacitly encouraging tax evasion.

Prosecutors investigating the offshore financial activities of the Prime Minister's media empire, have accused him of leading by example, though Berlusconi has always denied wrong-doing. But if people don't even have jobs – and six million Italians are now without fixed work – then avoiding tax isn't even an issue.

At the weekend, Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the employers' association Confindustria, a natural ally for a conservative PM, declared that the country was "paralysed" and the government "absent".

The big question then is how, or when, will Italy's farcical situation, which is proving so amusing for foreigners, but so galling for millions of Italians, actually end?

On 14 December the Constitutional Court will pronounce on the constitutionality of his current, temporary immunity law; if it overturns it, then Mr Berlusconi will again have to answer court summonses on corruption charges.

As political pundit Professor James Walston at the American University in Rome noted in a recent blog, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a desperate Berlusconi would do a runner. It would even seem like the logical conclusion for Mr Berlusconi to follow in the footsteps of his corrupt mentor, Prime Bettino Minister Craxi, who fled to exile in Tunisia 20 years ago to avoid a jail sentence.

Berlusconi has new luxury villa in Antigua, where he could party by the sea until he finally drops.

The women in the headlines

Noemi Letizia

April 2009: Mr Berlusconi infamously attended Noemi Letizia's 18th birthday party last year, and presented the lingerie model with a necklace worth €6,000 (£5,200).

Veronica Lario

May 2009: After 19 years of marriage, Veronica Lario announced she was seeking a divorce. They met in 1980 while the actress performed topless in a play.

Patrizia D'Addario

June 2009: the 43-year-old former escort claimed she was paid to attend Mr Berlusconi's private parties and secretly videoed a night she spent with him in Rome.

Karima Keyek

October 2010: Belly dancer Karima Keyek, 17, claimed Mr Berlusconi gave her a £70,000 car. She also claimed she saw sex sessions between party guests.

Nadia Macri

November 2010: Last week, 28-year-old television showgirl Nadia Macri told investigators that Mr Berlusconi paid her €10,000 (£8,738) for sex at two of his homes.

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