The bald message behind Berlusconi's latest surgery

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The Independent Online

This time, however, the secret got out long before the bandages were removed: acting on inside information, a correspondent of Rome's La Repubblica newspaper was on hand outside the private plastic surgery clinic in Ferrara yesterday as Italy's richest man and longest serving post-war prime minister swept up in a black Audi, and walked into the clinic surrounded by bodyguards.

Eight hours later, the Prime Minister made his exit, staggering from side to side, clutching at a guard rail, his scalp swathed in white bandages and topped by a skull cap.

The first the world knew of Mr Berlusconi's original transplant was 10 days later when he welcomed Tony and Cherie Blair to his Sardinian villa sporting a bandanna. Local rumours that the startling new look was designed to cover a hair transplant were initially ridiculed. But as the handiwork of transplant expert Piero Rosati took root, Mr Berlusconi began to brag about the operation. "My hair has started growing marvellously," he crowed on 30 December.

The theory in Rome is that Mr Berlusconi is working hard to look his best for the next general election, due by next May. If in the process he must duck out of cabinet meetings such as Wednesday's (he sent a sick note) at which his government mulled the massive scandal enveloping Italy's national bank - it is perhaps the clearest indication to voters of his priorities.