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The Berlusconi roadshow is disintegrating

Farewell, Paolo Bonaiuti. For 20 years Berlusconi and his money dominated Italy’s political story. But now that story’s over, and when Forza Italia finally expires it will leave barely a trace
  • @peterpopham

He will certainly be missed. Paolo Bonaiuti, whose departure from the rapidly thinning ranks of Berlusconi loyalists was reported this week, was the minder’s minder, the tireless Jeeves to Berlusconi’s Bertie Wooster, ever on hand to clear up a mess, to proffer a plausible excuse, to save his master’s bacon.

Tall but obsequiously stooped, with an undertaker’s air of total discretion, his value during his 18 years of service to the master became most obvious when he was not around.

In the summer of 2003 Boris Johnson, who was then editor of the Spectator, obtained an interview with Berlusconi at the premier’s seaside palace in Sardinia, later to become notorious for his ‘bunga-bunga’ parties.

“For three hours we have been in his presence,” Johnson wrote in The Spectator. “We have sat at a table in his drawing room, Berlusconi at the head, nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pyjama-suit…It has been, says Valentino, his charming interpreter, the most detailed and generous interview that the leader has ever given…there is no stopping the balding, beaming, bouncing multi-billionaire.”

It was one of only a handful he ever granted to foreign journalists, and it was a disaster. In the course of it Berlusconi claimed that Italian judges were “deranged by nature”, prompting the legal profession to go on strike, and that Mussolini’s was “a much more benign dictatorship” than Saddam Hussein’s. The left-wing opposition and Italy’s Jewish community hit the roof.

The only reason this disaster was allowed to happen was because Paolo Boniauti was on the other side of the world, crossing the Pacific in a small boat. Had he been in place, micro-managing the boss’s schedule as usual, it is inconceivable that Johnson would have got in the front door. And now Bonaiuti has left Forza Italia, the party Berlusconi created from nothing. “It was a difficult, painful decision,” he said this week, “one I have delayed for a long time, but fully motivated by political differences and personal incomprehension that have deepened in the past year.”

Say your piece, Paolo: no one believed a word you said when you were Berlusconi’s spokesman, so there is little reason to start now. Like the rest of his gang of flatterers, floozies and pimps, it was all too obvious why you were so loyal. In 1994, as deputy-editor of the Roman paper Il Messaggero you thundered against Berlusconi for sacking the legendary founder-editor of Il Giornale, the daily he had recently purchased. Two years later you were lucratively in harness.

With the boss condemned to the humiliation of a community service sentence in an old people’s home, the Berlusconi roadshow is disintegrating spectacularly. His Sicilian college friend Marcello dell’Utri, co-founder of Forza Italia and the alleged lynch-pin between him and the Sicilian  Mafia, fled the country before the Italian courts could hand down a verdict on the charge of Mafia association, but was arrested in Beirut and remains in jail.

The flood of local councillors and regular members pouring from Forza Italia into the new party formed by Berlusconi’s former dauphin, Angelino Alfano, tells its own story.

One of the few who have remained loyal is Sandro Bondi, a former communist politician who became one of his most trusted cronies. Six months ago he said of Forza Italia, “This story has finished badly. In all these years we have constructed nothing humanly or politically solid, capable of surviving the decline of Silvio Berlusconi.”

For 20 years Berlusconi and his money dominated Italy’s political story. But now that story’s over, and when Forza Italia finally expires it will leave barely a trace. There’s a moral there for other billionaires who dream of hijacking democracy.