World View: The strength of Italy's new PM lies in his outsider status

Like Mr Berlusconi, he expects to charm and to get his own way


Italy has been described as a laboratory of bad ideas – Mussolini and Fascism, Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo – but with the arrival of Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi, Rome’s answer to No 10, perhaps the men in white coats have hit on something rather wonderful. Just perhaps.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister for the past 12 days, is 39 and looks at least 10 years younger, except for a couple of tell-tale strands of grey hair above his ears. He is rather large and pudgy, like an overgrown teenager, has a plump, totally unmarked face which produces two small vertical lines above his nose when he is posed a tough question, and has a pleasing way of lapsing into funny, buffoonish expressions. Likeable if bumptious, one might decide – a bit of a smarty-pants. These are mild criticisms compared to those doubtless harboured by Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister and fellow member of the Democratic Party whom Mr Renzi stabbed in the back to get the top job.

So Mr Renzi is very sure of himself, and cheerfully ruthless. Above all, unlike Mr Letta and all previous leaders of PD, he does not look tired, afraid, haunted; he does not look like an old political hack. Of the various leaves he has taken out of Mr Berlusconi’s book, that aspect of genial self-confidence is the most striking: like Mr Berlusconi, he expects to charm, to get his own way; he is not terrified of being mugged around the next corner.

Mr Renzi’s other advantage is that you do not know where to place him on the political map. The political family trees of other leaders of the Italian centre-left can be plotted with the mad precision with which ZigZag magazine used to tease out the genealogies of rock bands. Their tracks can usually be followed back to the once-mighty Communist Party or the corrupt and discredited Socialist Party, or one of the powerful trade unions.

Such a bloodline gave a leader a good chance of unwavering support from one or more of Italy’s major newspapers, all of them packed with party loyalists of one stripe or another, but by the same token it means they have to carry a lot of baggage. It means there are all sorts of lobbies they don’t dare to touch. That’s why they look in fear of their lives.


Mr Renzi’s sensational arrival in the top job was greeted by the most muted of receptions in the heavy dailies. He was not their man: they didn’t know what to make of him, or what to expect of him. All this was good, even if it did not appear so at the time. It means he is not captive to the powerful lobbies that have submerged Italy in aspic for the past several decades.

Mr Renzi is the product of a political system whose most striking contemporary aspect is its fluidity. That may sound like a good thing but it’s the result of serial failure. The collapse of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in the corruption scandals of the early 1990s was the original failure, and yielded Berlusconi and Forza Italia. Berlusconi himself failed to do as he promised and revive the economy, and that failure eventually produced the threat of Italy going the way of Greece. But instead of galvanising the political class into a spasm of realism, as happened in Greece and elsewhere, the crisis merely persuaded the nomenklatura to cede power to the unelected dictatorship of Mario Monti, the bankers’ friend. It was a failure of courage by the political establishment for which they will pay for the rest of their careers

The proximate result was the triumph of the comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, which gained one-quarter of the popular vote in the last election. This was the ultimate victory of anti-politics, but Matteo Renzi is betting on the disaffected millions who gave Mr Grillo their vote being utterly disenchanted by his behaviour since then, his brutal negation of democratic practice within the party, the tyrannical expulsion of those who cross him, including five more senators booted out this week.

Those who voted for Mr Grillo were refugees from both the right and (more numerously) the left, whom successive disillusionments had rendered politically homeless. But now they are finding that Mr Grillo’s totally negative approach to the nation’s dramatic problems is barely more satisfactory than the policies enacted by his adversaries. Something, they realise now, must be done: it is not enough, like Mr Grillo’s sinister Rasputin, Roberto Casaleggio, to conjure nihilistic dreams of a third world war followed by a brave new world ruled over by Google. You have to deal with the here and now.

That’s Mr Renzi’s trump card: his air of determination to get things done. This week the European Union said that Italy faces a “major challenge” in tackling its debt which is now more than €2trn, 132.6 per cent of GDP. Also this week, Mr Renzi, who had his first meeting as Prime  Minister with David Cameron, Angela Merkel and other top EU leaders to discuss Ukraine yesterday, has promised immediate action on jobs, affordable housing and crumbling schools. Italians are wearily habituated to their leaders accomplishing very little, and taking forever about it. Some prompt and efficacious action will be much appreciated.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living