For days the airwaves have been buzzing with rumours of Silvio Berlusconi's imminent resignation. It is typical of this extraordinary politician, a combination of fox and limpet, that he should confirm the rumours while at the same time confounding them. He will indeed go, but only if... and that "if" contains a universe of possibilities for delay, imbroglio, well-lubricated persuasion of wavering colleagues, flat-out contradiction that he ever said anything of the sort. "They will have to carry him out," is the conclusion of many Italians. They may yet be proved right.
But let us be rash and take him at his word and declare the Berlusconi era if not over then at least closer to its end than ever before. What sort of a ride has it been? Bumpy. Farcical. Monstrous. Pointless. Above all, a terrible waste of 17 years, which is the length of time his person and his fortune have dominated Italian politics.
He first came to power in 1994 after the meltdown of the existing major parties in a vast bribery scandal. With so many crooked politicians in jail, a wind of reform was blowing through the country. Then in the space of three months Berlusconi, already vastly famous and rich thanks to his television empire, conjured Forza Italia into existence then drove it to triumph in a general election. And all talk of reform dropped off the agenda.
Although Berlusconi located himself on the centre-right and constantly flagellated Italian "communists", real and imagined, reform never really interested him. Margaret Thatcher? "Non e una bella gnocca," he once opined – "not a great piece of pussy". Overhauling the Italian state never turned him on: it would involve alienating people. As a former cruise-ship crooner, and provider to the nation of titillating American-style variety shows, all he was really interested in was making people feel happy, and getting rich in the process. As premier it was no different.
His first term lasted a bare seven months after the Northern League abandoned his coalition, but he had broken the mould of Italian politics and it would never be the same again. The centre-left fluffed an excellent opportunity to stop him in his tracks with a conflict of interest law, because it was already fatally in awe of his money, his charisma and the following which his television channels ensured. And in 2001 he came roaring back into power. Berlusconi has long claimed to be the victim of a conspiracy by "toghe rosse"(red togas), to thwart the popular mandate by putting him in jail. But if it is true that they were looking for dirt, there was plenty of it to be dug up. The cases against him and his closest cronies have exposed appalling scandals.
There is no point pretending he won't be missed. When Romano Prodi narrowly beat him in the general election of 2006, journalists' hearts sank: what could you do with this suet-like economics professor, this "nice cyclist" as Berlusconi called him? While Berlusconi – from his sultry, stacked wives and endless fragrant girlfriends to his facelifts and hair implants, from his endless flow of dirty jokes to his mangling of Italian– was copy made flesh.
The most remarkable thing about Berlusconi is his success, year after year, in persuading a huge chunk of the Italian electorate that he was their best possible leader – despite his utter failure either to reform or to promote economic growth. His ownership of mass media explains part of it, but not all. He may be a small politician, but he will leave a massive hole.