That explosive mix of sex and politics
John Costello on where Silvio Berlusconi stands in the great scandal league
Bikini-clad lovelies, lavish pool parties and portly, middle-aged men. The current brouhaha surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could well be the plot of a Benny Hill sketch. All that's missing is the theme tune.
The 72-year-old media tycoon's 15-year political rollercoaster ride has survived allegations of links with the mafia, accusations of corruption and a plethora of political gaffes. But the current scandal surrounding his private life and liaisons with highly paid prostitutes has had his presidency teetering on the brink of catastrophe.
Yet Berlusconi is not only a lover, but a fighter.
"I have never paid a woman," he said this week denying the allegations. "I have never seen the satisfaction that there could be in it without the pleasure of conquest."
The flamboyant billionaire has been besieged with sleaze allegations since early May when his wife of 20 years, Veronica Lario, announced she was suing for divorce due to his endless womanising and accused him of "frequenting underage females".
His relationship with 18-year-old Neapolitan model Noemi Letizia then came under scrutiny after he arrived at her birthday party with a diamond necklace. But Noemi-gate proved only foreplay compared to the more damaging allegations that have since surfaced.
Call girl Patrizia D'Addario claimed she was lured to Mr Berlusconi's Rome residence on the promise of earning €2,000 last November. When she arrived, she says even she was shocked at the bevy of beauties in attendance. Now as many as 30 women, who were invited to similar events, are being questioned by prosecutors investigating the procurement of prostitutes as part of the 'entertainment' for such gatherings.
Just for good measure, paparazzi snaps of topless babes and a naked man lounging around Berlusconi's villa surfaced in Spain's El Pais newspaper. When asked by Italian state-run radio why there had been several naked women at his villa, Berlusconi promptly replied: "Do you take a shower dressed? These are innocent photos; there's no scandal, but this is a violation of privacy and a scandalous aggression."
However, it seems Italians can forgive their Prime Minister almost anything. Despite the girls, gaffes and alleged grifting, Berlusconi scored a resounding victory in the European elections.
Like Berlusconi, Bill Clinton refused to resign despite the furore over his sex scandal. However, the man with a penchant for playing with cigars was forced to admit an "improper physical relationship" with Monica Lewinsky and was consequently impeached.
While the puritanical Americans may overreact to sex scandals, the Irish, like the Italians, have tended to turn a blind eye.
This is possibly due to the repercussions of the adultery trial involving Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea. Captain William O'Shea, Kitty's husband, tolerated the affair for nearly a decade in the hope he would inherit money from his wife's aunt. However, after she died in 1889 and failed to mention the captain in her will, he instigated divorce proceedings that would expose the sordid details of Parnell's affair, outrage the Catholic hierarchy and extinguish the hope of Home Rule for another generation.
The impact of Parnell's downfall helped make it taboo in Ireland to delve into the private lives of public figures. So even the 'dogs on the street' kept mum when it came to Charles Haughey's 27-year affair with Terry Keane.
However, when it comes to liaisons dangereuses few can compete with the French. Take Francois Mitterrand. When he died in 1996, it was revealed he had been living a double life for decades with Anne Pingeot with whom he fathered a daughter.
But when it comes to having all the intrigue of a Bond movie, the Profumo Affair stands head and shoulders above all other political sex scandals. In 1963, John Profumo, Secretary of State for War under the Harold Macmillan, was accused of putting national security at risk after a whirlwind romance with showgirl Christine Keeler who had also been having an affair with Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov.
David Mellor's extra-marital affair with the actress Antonia De Sancha became public knowledge after his mistress sold her kiss-and-tell story to the News of the World for £30,000 in 1992. The sordid details not only included allegations of toe-sucking but claimed Mellor liked to wear the Chelsea football kit during love-making.
Then there was John Major and Edwina Currie's stomach-churning romps, which came to light in 2002.
In May 2006, the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott fielded questions in the House of Commons after news of his affair with his secretary had hit the headlines. One Tory MP sent his colleagues into convulsions when he asked Prescott: "What steps will you be taking to ensure that staff working under you are not subject to sexual harassment?"