In an embarrassing U-turn that could herald the end of his tumultuous political career, the media tycoon abandoned his bid to topple the coalition government of which his People of Freedom party is a member.
The 77-year-old billionaire had been threatening for weeks to torpedo the shaky coalition led by Enrico Letta, the centre-left prime minister, and had ordered his loyalists to vote against the coalition in a Senate vote.
His aim had been to bring down the government before a vote tomorrow on whether or not the former prime minister should be evicted from the Senate because of conviction for fraud.
But he miscalculated badly and his threats backfired in dramatic fashion.
Instead of kowtowing, a large number of his senators openly defied him before the vote, declaring that they would instead support the government in the interests of rebuilding Italy's credibility.
Faced with the unprecedented revolt within PDL, Mr Berlusconi changed his mind at the last minute. "Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms that the country needs to modernise. We have decided, not without internal strife, to vote in confidence," he told the parliament, in a tone stripped of the bellicosity of recent days. The confidence vote was passed easily, with 235 senators voting in favour and only 70 against.
The ignominious climbdown raised questions as to whether, after 20 years of broken promises, sex scandals and corruption trials, Mr Berlusconi's political career was finally spluttering out.
The rebels were led by one of the billionaire businessman's closest confidantes – Angelino Alfano, the 42-year-old national secretary of the party and Mr Berlusconi's anointed political heir."
Alfano betrays" was the headline in yesterday's 'Il Giornale', the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family.
Mr Alfano had gone from being a prince-in-waiting to playing the role of Brutus to Mr Berlusconi's Caesar, masterminding the plot to have him stabbed in the back, commentators said.
Mr Berlusconi sparked the crisis on Saturday, when he ordered the five ministers from his party who serve in the coalition to resign. But within hours of that diktat there were rumblings of dissent.
Mr Letta told the upper house that it was crucial that his government was given a firm mandate so that it could continue tackling Italy's mountainous political debt, reform its dysfunctional political system and breathe life into a stagnant economy.A Senate committee will vote tomorrow on whether to recommend expelling him from politics for good, after he was convicted in August of tax fraud and given a four-year sentence.
Mr Berlusconi will not go to prison but is instead expected to be put under house arrest or made to do some form of community service for 12 months.
Despite the acute problems he faces, Mr Berlusconi has shown himself to be remarkably resilient. "Berlusconi has seven lives and it is not out of the question that he could invent an eighth one," Antonio Polito, a political commentator, wrote in the leading Italian daily 'Corriere della Sera'. (© Daily Telegraph, London)