Our man In Rome: Popularity of a pratfalling premier

What can be done, opposition politicians over here ask themselves in desperation, to weaken Silvio Berlusconi's grip on power? To put a serious dent in his popularity, which remains immense?

Last week's "Nazi" gag might do it, but I wouldn't bet on it. When the Italian premier told Martin Schulz, an aggressive German Socialist MEP, that Schulz would be perfect for the part of a "kapo" in a film about a concentration camp, Berlusconi sparked a major Euro flap, torpedoed Italy's turn at the EU presidency, and plunged Italy's relations with Germany into crisis. You could see opposition leaders here asking themselves, will this do the trick? With undertaker expressions, they came on camera and intoned about the grave damage to Italy's image. Yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if opinion surveys over the next weeks prove that Berlusconi's support remains as firm as ever.

He is the Italian voter's secret vice. A colleague here told me that she has yet to meet anyone - and she asks everyone she meets - who admits to having voted for the man. But a majority did. Mrs Thatcher had a similarly furtive fan-base during her years of glory. To admit to voting Tory during those years was like confessing to necrophilia. It was to align yourself openly with the hangers and floggers, the Little Englanders, the gut enemies of immigration. It was, in other words, unfashionable. But it was the way a lot of people secretly felt.

When Berlusconi rolled into Rome with a landslide victory in May 2001, nobody who voted for him could claim ignorance of his reputation. They knew that he had got to the top in business by working hard and bending every rule in the book. They knew that he was accused of bribing judges, of cooking the accounts, and suspected of having transformed himself from a property developer into a media tycoon with the help of laundered Mafia money. They also knew that, as a politician, he was a rank amateur. And knowing all this, they put him back in power.

This makes it very hard for his opponents to get a handle on him. Teflon doesn't describe it. It's as if the man's made of soapstone. When he commits a pratfall, the mass of Italians seem to instinctively put themselves in his sorry shoes. He went for that rowdy German, he made light of the Holocaust? Yes, but the German attacked him first, and being a normal guy like us, Berlusconi lashed out the way you would. And telling jokes about the Holocaust - isn't that what everyone does, in private? The world came down on him like a ton of bricks. That's professional politicians for you. No mercy, no indulgence, no sincerity.

Berlusconi has tapped into a rich vein of anarchy in the Italian electorate. If Italians are less hypocritical than Europeans further north, they've got less to be hypocritical about. Three weeks ago, the organisers of Italy's most famous song contest at Sanremo were rounded up and herded into prison, accused of taking large bribes from warbling hopefuls. I have yet to meet anybody who was surprised about this so-called scandal. Last week, the organisers were all set free again, without charge - because organising a song contest is not "public service", seemingly, so it doesn't matter what the hell you do.

A political ally of Berlusconi's in Sicily, where his party made a clean sweep in the last general election, has been arrested for being in cahoots with the Mafia. Surprise, surprise. A few weeks earlier, a former pillar of the Communist Party on the island was arrested for the same offence. They're all at it, Italian voters shrug. They've all got their snouts in the trough.

You begin to understand why the left sets such store by Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission who in 1996 beat Berlusconi to become prime minister. Prodi, the left's king over the water, is expected home in time to lead them into the next election. The style of the two men could not be more different: Berlusconi is nervy and mercurial, all teeth and suntan; Prodi is slow, ponderous, stone-faced. What they have in common is their "genuinita": they are both latecomers to politics, and they look it. Prodi, the former professor, seems permanently ill at ease in the political spotlight. Last week in Strasbourg, after the "Nazi" incident, he was lost for words. "I feel like crying," he was heard to murmur, wandering towards the lift.

Where even the flowers make your mouth water

I was brought up by gardening-mad parents who were also worshippers at the shrine of Elizabeth David, yet I had no idea, until I landed in Rome, that you could eat flowers. Now, every morning, I look out of the kitchen window at our modest patch of zucchini plants, the blowsy, peach-coloured blooms opening among the large ungainly leaves, and I go out and snip them off. You make a batter and add some beer - I use stout, which stiffens the flavour - then dunk the flowers and fry them. It's not like eating live octopus, which I found myself doing once in Korea, but there is a mildly pleasurable frisson of transgression about eating flowers.

With its long, dry, balmy summers, Rome is one of the best cities in Europe to enjoy a garden, so it seems unfair that only a tiny fraction of Romans can do so. We live in a block of modern flats but we're on the ground floor, and the ribbon of land that separates this block from the next goes with the flat. It appears to have been totally neglected since the block was built 25 years ago. Someone stuck their old Christmas tree in the ground a couple of decades ago; it's now almost as tall as the building.

A local gardener called Giovanni has been showing me the ropes, as this is the first garden I've ever done more than sniff at. He is well into his eighties, and his advice is always practical. When I moan about our capsicums, which are giving no indication of sending forth fruit or flowers, he suggests buying some peppers at the supermarket and tying them on with string.

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