The scene is now set for the fall of Silvio Berlusconi

Italy's scandal-ridden Prime Minister in last-ditch effort to avoid defeat in next week's debate
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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi tomorrow begins his last week in office as Italy's Prime Minister before a crucial parliamentary confidence vote sounds the death knell for a government rocked by cocaine-fuelled sex scandals and WikiLeaks claims of corruption.

"In a few days parliament will bear witness to what everyone knows, that the government is no more, or is not able to govern," said Gianfranco Fini, the "post-Fascist" parliamentary speaker who precipitated Italy's political crisis by withdrawing support from 74-year-old Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom alliance, and taking four ministers out of the government. On Friday, 85 MPs from Mr Fini's breakaway Futurist Party and other centre-right groupings signed a new no-confidence motion, reinforcing an earlier one tabled by the former communist Democratic Party, which, together with the anti-corruption Italy Values party, commands a further 230 votes.

In all, 317 MPs have indicated that they will vote against the media mogul in the 14 December confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies. This means that Mr Berlusconi would be able to muster only 310 "no" votes, forcing him to hand in his resignation to the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano.

Mr Berlusconi has poured scorn on claims that he will lose the vote, calling it a bufala (buffalo), Italian slang for a bluff. Il Messaggero newspaper quoted Mr Berlusconi as telling his inner circle: "I will not be grabbed by the cazzo [prick] with this bullshit." But Mr Fini's Futurist whip, Italo Bocchino, hit back: "It is evident that there are 317 votes to end this government experience. It is not a bufala."

The government, fatally weakened by 58-year-old Mr Fini's defection in protest at Mr Berlusconi's failure to designate him as his successor, as well as by the older man's incessant reported partying with escorts and showgirls, has been repeatedly defeated in votes on parliamentary bills. Last week Mr Fini and the speaker of the Senate decided to suspend all parliamentary business ahead of the confidence vote.

Mr Berlusconi returned to Rome on Friday night from yet another trip to Russia and Kazakhstan, as Italians digested WikiLeaks revelations of US embassy cables alleging his involvement in corruption on the South Stream gas pipeline, a Gazprom-Eni joint venture that will bring gas from Russia to Europe.

The latest no-confidence motion by Mr Fini's supporters urged Mr Berlusconi to take note of the "inadequacy" of his government and resign even before the vote, meaning he could, in theory, try to form a new, broader coalition. Yesterday, however, Mr Berlusconi was reviewing last-ditch efforts by his party whips to persuade at least 10 out of the 317 hostile deputies to abstain so he can win the critical vote and carry on until a general election. He would like this to be called in May, when local elections are scheduled in Milan, Turin, Bologna, Genoa and 25 other cities.