Peter Popham: Knives are out for battle-scarred premier

Silvio Berlusconi has been plagued by law suits, most of them alleging corruption, ever since he entered politics 15 years ago, and he has devoted huge amounts of energy, ingenuity and parliamentary time to thwarting them. Now his latest attempt, like the earlier ones, has bitten the dust. Once again he is subject to the motto inscribed on the wall of every court in Italy: "The law is equal for all."

It is a severe embarrassment for a Prime Minister who still enjoys great popular support but who has struggled all year against a tide of squalid personal revelations.

Mr Berlusconi quickly announced that he would not resign – nor would he have been expected to. But he is in serious trouble. After the divorce shock and the sex scandals in the spring, his formerly robust support began to shrink. Key figures in the Church turned against him, an ominous development for Mr Berlusconi, who has always been adept at keeping this most important Italian power base on side. He struck back, engineering the resignation of an important pro-Church editor. But that was a reckless blow he may live to regret.

Now his long-term deputy, Gianfranco Fini, the former neo-fascist leader who has been drifting leftwards, has hooked up in a new think-tank with Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the head of Fiat – that other great Italian power base. Mr Berlusconi will talk tough and his Northern League allies will remain solid. But powerful forces are ranged against him, and last night they were crowing.