Conte: leading Italy from a small crisis to utter disaster?
It remains to be seen how well an unknown academic can lead Italy's government, writes Paddy Agnew
It is a hot and heavy May morning down at Palazzo Montecitorio, the Italian lower house of parliament. A small number of deputies (they call them that too in Italy) are sitting around the building's famous "transatlantico" - a huge marble-lined foyer complete with leather armchairs, the regulation bar and a perfectly adjusted air-conditioning system.
Rather than looking like the nerve centre of a power structure that might just be on the edge of fragmentation, the 17th-century "transatlantico" looks much more like the reception area of a swanky, five-star hotel. A party of students are led through by one of the house ushers who asks them to walk on the carpet so as not to damage the wonderful marble floors.
Perhaps the usher should have told the students to be worried, not about the floor, but rather about the very foundations of the building. For the second time in the past seven years, an Italian government crisis last week threatened to shake the foundations not only of Palazzo Montecitorio but, potentially, of the entire European Union.
Seven years ago, it was the centre-right government of the scandal-plagued media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi which had the EU a-rocking and a-rolling. Last week, it was the formation of a new government, led by two different anti-establishment, protest parties (combined 49pc vote) that prompted both "market" turbulence and EU-wide diplomatic tension.
So what happened in Italy last week?
Put simply, 80 tormented days after last March's general election, days marked by five different prime minister designates, two "populist" forces - the once-Northern League and the Five Star Movement - last Friday took office. The point is, of course, that these are two forces which in the past have been liberally doused in eurosceptic sentiment.
Is the (Northern) League not the political force which for 20 of the past 30 years has cheerfully espoused the secessionist cause of the mythical Padania, a Northern Italy territory based in Lombardy? Did not the movement's founder, Senator Umberto Bossi, once tell supporters that the only use he could find for the Italian flag was to wipe his arse with it.
When asked how to deal with boats dumping clandestine migrants on Italy's shores, Mr Bossi once famously called for the use of arms and a canon that would "blow everyone out of the water".
Regularly, Bossi would do his 'Grand Old Duke of York' routine, threatening to march the boys all the way to Rome, with provocations like:
"The Lombards have never taken out their rifles, but there is always a first time..."
All this Pirates of Penzance -style folklore was more than just empty rhetoric, it was based on a strong xenophobic, racist and anti-migrant sentiment among much of his Northern League electorate.
If old man Bossi, still alive but long since replaced as the League's leader, seemed a bit rough and ready, he was chicken feed by comparison with the founder of the Five Star movement, former TV comic Beppe Grillo. He entered the political arena, 20 years after Bossi and the League, bouncing into the national limelight in September 2007 with his 'Vaffanculo Day' (which, in case your Italian is not up to it, means 'Go F**k Yourself Day').
On that day, he proposed a series of radical reforms that included the then-novel idea that those with criminal convictions (fraud, corruption, mafia-related) should not be allowed to run for parliament. At the time, no party paid any attention but he had put the issue on the political agenda, eventually prompting the 2011 Severino law, the legislation which banned Silvio Berlusconi from holding public office for six years and which ruled him out of last March's general election.
Ignored and ridiculed by the mainstream political parties, Grillo and his movement finally decided that they would run for parliament themselves, "opening it up like a tin of tuna fish". This they did, too, winning an incredible 25.5pc of the vote in their first general election outing in 2013.
Five years ago, Grillo's 'sans-culottes' put their votes in the freezer, refusing to form part of any coalition. This time was different. With their 33pc vote, they felt more than entitled to take power, even if that meant having to govern with an unlikely partner in the League.
The contrasts between the two movements are all too obvious. The Five Star electoral base is essentially southern Italy. Their most effective campaign promises include the institution of a sort of dole and environmentalist issues such as the public water supply and opposition to high-speed train services.
Arguably, their most controversial proposal could be the introduction of meaningful conflict of interests legislation, aimed essentially at media mogul/Forza Italia leader Berlusconi. Throughout the government formation process, they have refused any form of power sharing with Mr Berlusconi, described by senior Movimento figure, Alessandro di Batista, as "total evil".
In contrast, the League's priorities range from restoring "law and order" to the streets to a 10pc-15pc flat income tax to combating Italy's migrant "invasion", essentially by immediate, enforced repatriation. Furthermore, the League's electoral base remains essentially, although not exclusively, in the North. After all, until recently, the League leadership used to refer to Neapolitans, Calabrians and Sicilians as "terroni" - scrubbers at best, mafiosi at worst. Above all, the League has historically been a close ally of Berlusconi.
So, how can this "yellow-green" alliance function for more than five minutes? Getting your hands on the levers of power could be an intoxicating motivation. And that, of course, is precisely what worries and will continue to worry the men in dark suits in places like Frankfurt and Brussels.
After all, Italy is still the third biggest economy in Eurolandia. What will this "government of change" come up with next? The combination of flat tax and dole will break the bank, say the bean counters.
Two factors underwrite this unlikely partnership. Firstly, the cynical irresponsibility of Italy's mainstream political parties and secondly, the ambition of the two very different but talented leaders, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio of the Five Stars and 45-year-old Matteo Salvini of the League.
Political cynicism has seen Italian politics dominated since 2005 by electoral legislation intended not to create stable government but rather to make sure that your opponent could not win the upcoming election. Aware of the impending explosion of the protest vote in an ever less egalitarian Italy of 33pc youth unemployment, the ruling PD (Partito Democratico), supported by Berlusconi's Forza Italia, last year enacted new electoral legislation intended essentially to make it difficult for any one party to win a workable house majority.
The so-called 'Rosatellum' law was, essentially, intended to keep the Five Star Movement out of office. In that sense, it almost worked.
The most recent obstacle on the road to the creation of this new Five Star/League government came last Sunday night when Italian president Sergio Mattarella, in what was arguably an abuse of his powers, refused to accept the nomination of allegedly eurosceptic economist Paolo Savona as economics minister. After 80 days of tortured negotiations, the show looked as if it was finally on the road and then the president pulled the plug. Why?
Article 92 of the Italian constitution establishes that the state president nominates the prime minister "and following the indications" of the prime minister, he also nominates the cabinet ministers. Mattarella told Italians on TV that the nomination of the economics minister could prompt "alarm or reassurance on the markets", adding: "The uncertainty over our position within the euro has alarmed Italian and foreign investors who have invested in securities and companies."
Until Mattarella said that, the "markets" had been relatively stable. By blocking the formation of the government, he unleashed the very speculation he had intended to avoid. This was a capolavoro - an even more spectacular own goal than the one scored the previous night by the hapless Liverpool goalkeeper, Loris Karius, in the Champions League final.
All of a sudden we were looking at an immediate general election re-run in which the main campaign issue would have been Italian sovereignty. Who elects an Italian government? Il Popolo or EU bankers? Or other populist slogans to that effect in what would have become an Italian Brexit. The EU's Budget Commissioner, German Gunther Ottinger, hardly helped when he expressed the hope midweek that "developments on bond markets, the market value of banks" would encourage the Italian electorate in such an election "not to hand populists on the right and left any responsibility in government". So, the bond markets should decide the government, should they?
By the end of the week, the terrifying prospect of such an election in the white hot heat of the Italian summer had calmed many minds. By last Friday afternoon, the Ital-exit fears were over. We were back to where we had been a week previously with the new government, led by non-elected academic Giuseppe Conte, being sworn in.
And there, too, hangs a tale. Conte is the fifth consecutive non-elected Italian prime minister, following in the shoes of Messers Monti, Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni. The last elected Italian prime minister was Silvio Berlusconi in 2011. Sounds like a healthy democracy?
Furthermore, the relatively unknown Conte is there because Messers Di Maio and Salvini both wanted to be prime minister. Their solution to their contrasting ambitions was to appoint a third party. It remains to be seen just how this academic with no political power base of his own will manage to hold together his motley crew of one-time, anti-establishment protesters. The men in the dark suits may still have reason to worry.