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Silvio Berlusconi’s efforts to usurp Giorgia Meloni are but the final foxy roars of a ageing lion


Giorgia Meloni and Silvio Berlusconi on Friday last

Giorgia Meloni and Silvio Berlusconi on Friday last

Giorgia Meloni and Silvio Berlusconi on Friday last

It was perhaps a case of the Old Lion, some would say the Old Fox, roaring for one last time.

Throughout the last two turbulent weeks of Italian political life, right up to Giorgia Meloni’s formal swearing in yesterday morning as the country’s first female prime minister, it was 86-year-old Silvio Berlusconi who stole the show.

And a ‘show’ is exactly what it was.

Even as Italy laboured with the desperately serious task of putting together a new right-wing coalition government at an unprecedented post-1945 moment — marked by war, an energy crisis, a still raging pandemic, high inflation and job insecurity — Berlusconi could not resist making the sort of mischief that almost overturned the entire applecart.

It all began early last week when he took his place in the senate for the first time since 2013 when he was banned from holding public office because of a tax fraud conviction.

Incidentally, he was elected in what is now his home town of Monza — where, surprise, surprise, he just happens to own the local football team, to which he has brought huge success, seeing it promoted to Italy’s top league of Serie A this summer, for the first time in its history.

Knowing full well that hundreds of cameras were trained on him as he sat at his desk in the senate chamber, Berlusconi just happened to leave on view an A4 size sheet of paper with just a few, clearly legible handwritten words.

The thing is those words were an appraisal of Giorgia Meloni — the woman who has replaced him as the leader of the Italian centre-right, following her general election triumph last month.

Berlusconi referred to his 45-year-old rival as “self-important, bossy, arrogant, offensive and ridiculous”. Sounded as if the centre-right was going to get off to a cracking start. All week, he continued in the same vein.

On Monday, a day after he had met with Meloni to explain that his words were a mistake brought to light by pesky photo-reporters, he was at it again.

This time, he revealed to reporters the probable cabinet formation of the new coalition government — in the process promoting figures from his own Forza Italia party who were by no means the choice of the new prime minister.

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Was he trying to force her hand, usurping her role as PM?

As often with Berlusconi, a woman has featured at the centre of his concerns over the last fortnight.

In particular, he was outraged on behalf of Licia Ronzulli, a Forza Italia MP and former nurse, who for most of the last six years has functioned as his minder, his close confidante, his counsellor and his “political secretary”, to the extent that she reportedly controls access to him.

He had wanted the ministry of health for her — but Meloni said no, refusing to do him an old-style ‘favour’, essentially because she wants a government of high-profile, qualified people.

Worse was to follow next day. News agency La Presse released a ‘bootleg’ recording of a speech delivered by Berlusconi to Forza Italia senators and deputies.

In this speech, he told his party members he had recently restored his well-known good relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had sent him “20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter” for his 86th birthday, adding that Putin had told him that he was at No 1 among the “five friends left to me in Europe”.

He then went on to suggest that Putin’s “special military operation” had been in response to the military aggression of Ukraine in the Donbas region.

Furthermore, the “special operation” was only meant to last a week — during which time the unreliable Volodymyr Zelenksy would be toppled from office, to be replaced by “sensible, upstanding” figures.

In short, the whole Russia-Ukraine war was the fault of a bungling western intervention, egged on by UKraine’s aggressive Volodymyr Zelensky.

Most worryingly, perhaps, was that his phantomatic account of the Russia-Ukraine war was met with a warm round of applause by the party parliamentarians.

No one apparently dared to tell the old man that there might be another, very different side to this story.

Again Meloni intervened promptly, lest anyone get the idea that Berlusconi might be laying out a pro-Putin line for the new government, reaffirming that Italy, under her, remains pro-Nato and a “proud” member of the European and Atlantic alliance.

She added that there is no place in her government for anyone who “is not in agreement with this cornerstone principle”. Berlusconi and friends had been warned

So what was Mr B up to? Just trying to mess up Meloni so that she would appease him by awarding his party the justice and economic development ministries? These two posts would certainly have interested him.

For one, he still has ‘problems’ with Italian justice. He currently stands accused of perjury and corruption in the Ruby-ter hearings, relating to the infamous ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties.

As for the economic development portfolio, he would clearly like to have influence there given his huge TV, media, publishing, banking and insurance interests.

Watching Berlusconi walk wearily and slowly in and out of the presidential palace for the government consultations on Friday, another thought sprung to mind.

The Old Fox — the man who has called all the shots, or nearly all of them, in the centre-right since his dramatic entrance into politics in 1994 — simply cannot get accustomed to a political drama of this size in which he is not centre stage.

For now, Giorgia Meloni is clearly in charge.

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