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)

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice