Golden boy loses his shine: Silvio Berlusconi is finding that his recipe for business success can leave a nasty taste in the political arena

THAT SLY old fox of Italian politics, Giulio Andreotti, was fond of saying (to explain his apparent immortality): 'Power only wears out those who don't have it.'

For the man who stepped into the fox's shoes, the old adage has proved, cruelly, the reverse of the truth.

Little more than 100 days after media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi swept into office, the golden aura surrounding him is fading before the eyes of the Italian people. Damaged by a bone-headed confrontation with anti-corruption magistrates, and entangled in the conflict of interest between his commercial and political affairs, Mr Berlusconi has woken up to the harsh realities of politics beyond the television studio.

At one stage it looked as if his government would fall. If he has won a temporary reprieve, it is largely because elections would suit no one at this fragile stage in Italy's public life.

When Mr Berlusconi and his right-wing allies won their landslide victory at the end of March, the 'merchant prince' seemed to be lord of all he surveyed. Backed by a pounds 4bn business empire, including television stations and publishing interests, the power concentrated in Mr Berlusconi's hands was enormous. He promised that he would create a new Italy, an Italy 'to dream about'.

The product was brilliantly sold. Mr Berlusconi's suave but straightforward style, the impeccable tan (applied, cynics said, from a bottle for the cameras) and the ready smile were a welcome change from the weasel words and decrepit air of the professional politicians. What went wrong?

'Berlusconi is first and foremost a businessman. He ran his empire by force of personality and diktat. That still worked well for him when he threw his resources into the electoral campaign,' says a financial analyst who has followed the fortunes of Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest group since its beginning. 'His problems started once he had to govern. He is only just realising that you can't run a country like a company, especially a country like Italy, where consensus and compromise have always been the tradition.'

Mr Berlusconi's first mistake, and the root of all others, was to brush aside demands that he distance himself formally from Fininvest when he took power. He gave up day-to-day running of the group when he entered politics, but the man to whom he handed the reins, Fedele Consalonieri, was an old and trusted intimate.

Rumours persisted that the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of top Fininvest managers every Sunday at his magnificent villa in Milan. Not for Mr Berlusconi an American-style blind trust. Italian companies were different, he said. Besides, he'd built his empire over 30 years, and he couldn't sever himself from it just like that. Political commentators pointed out the anomaly, in a Western democracy, of a prime minister owning half the country's television stations himself and controlling the other half - those of the state broadcasting corporation - through his political office.

The tycoon's coalition partners, too, were unhappy, particularly the populist Northern League, which was elected on a platform of 'clean government'. Besides, they could see at first hand how access to friendly media was boosting the fortunes of the Prime Minister's Forza Italia party at their expense. Mr Berlusconi swept all objections aside with pious assurances that he himself would be the guarantor of 'fair play'.

The grumblings had all but died down when Mr Berlusconi scored his first, extraordinary own goal. The confrontation with the country's 'clean hands' investigators laid him open to corrosive charges of self-interest. When on Thursday 14 July he issued an emergency decree removing the power of magistrates to order preventive detention of suspects, the public outcry caught the Prime Minister off guard. The only man in Italy more popular than himself, the anti- graft judge and secular saint, Antonio Di Pietro, threatened to resign.

Mr Berlusconi was furious. One of his television stations replaced a scheduled film with another telling the tragic tale of a man unjustly jailed. Another ran an interview in which the Prime Minister defended his decision.

But the magic formula no longer worked. As his own coalition allies lined up against him, Mr Berlusconi was forced into a humiliating U-turn. Why, conspiracy theorists asked, had he tried to use an emergency power, effectively bypassing parliament? Were the judges drawing too close to the Prime Minister's business affairs?

Berlusconi's ordeal had just begun. Days later, Judge Di Pietro's team announced the arrest of a Fininvest executive on charges of bribing finance police to overlook massive tax fraud. The Prime Minister's younger brother, Paolo, was implicated in the case. When details emerged of a meeting at Mr Berlusconi's villa between the Prime Minister, members of his government - all of them ex-Fininvest employees - and the defence lawyers for Paolo and the other company executive, all hell broke loose.

On Friday Mr Berlusconi bowed again to the necessities of public life and agreed to set up the sort of business trust that he had resisted for so long. He has bought himself some time but how much more? 'In a matter of days Berlusconi managed to demolish his political image, put the delicate balance of his coalition under extreme pressure and alienate his own supporters. At this point I'm not sure that his government will see out the year,' said Harry Richter, the former president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Milan.

Political inexperience or sheer hubris alone do not explain the mess into which the golden boy has descended. The answer lies in the great, smoothly humming Milanese hive that is Fininvest.

Imagine the sort of corporate loyalty expected, and given, in American companies. Add to that the sheer force of Mr Ber lusconi's personality and his generosity with high achievers (he reputedly invited the top sales staff of his publishing company Mondadori for regular dinners, and would present each guest with a pounds 500 watch at the end of the evening).

Like another business tycoon-cum-politician, Ross Perot, Mr Berlusconi surrounded himself with aides drawn from the ranks of his own employees. Unlike Mr Perot, Mr Berlusconi made it to the top of the political tree. It seems that among his courtiers - most of them as politically inexperienced as him - no one was able to tell the tycoon what he could or could not get away with electorally.

As the ancient Romans used to consult chicken entrails, Mr Berlusconi uses opinion polls produced by his own PR company, Diakron, to take the pulse of the nation before making decisions. At the beginning of July they showed an approval rating of more than 70 per cent, suggesting he could win the public over to almost anything. They turned out to be wrong. Now his popularity stands at a little over 50 per cent and falling. If Mr Berlusconi is not to be worn out by power, he will have to learn to invest his political capital more wisely.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most