By Tim Montgomerie
On Wednesday David Cameron flew to Rome for dinner with his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi. Photographs of Mr Cameron's visits with foreign leaders are featured prominently on the Downing Street flickr account. From Obama to Merkel, from Zadari to Erdogan, there's a photo for every visit. But there's no official photo of Cameron meeting Berlusconi. For many years the 73-year-old Italian leader has been the European Right's unacceptable face and it may be that he's now entering the final period of his long period in the political spotlight.
Gianfranco Fini (pictured) recently abandoned Mr Berlusconi and established a new Future and Freedom for Italy (FLI) grouping in the Italian Parliament. Fini had been allied to Berlusconi in some way since 1994 and just last year they formed the People of Freedom Party. Sitting independently the 25 to 33* member FLI group has the numbers to bring Berlusconi down if other centrists and the Left also support a vote of no confidence. The weakness of the Left may mean, however, that they'll give Berlusconi some time. An early election would probably see a reduction in the number of Left-wing MPs as the Right-wing parties shared a larger proportion of the national vote between them.
Fini eventually split with Berlusconi on the multiple ethics issues that have engulfed the Italian PM. Fini said that the defence of scandal-hit party members led members of the government to possess "an expectation of impunity." Berlusconi himself is accused of both sexual and financial immorality although the Wall Street Journal recently carried an article which made a good case for saying he had overseen the "toughest crackdown" on the Mafia in "decades". Nonetheless, more allegations of bedding prostitutes surfaced this week in La Repubblica.
Fini's own political journey is hardly uncontroversial. He may present himself as a moderate today but his roots are in political traditions with connections with Mussolini. Nonetheless, The Economist (long a critic of Berlusconi) think Fini deserves the benefit of the doubt:
"His praise long ago for Mussolini was indeed contemptible, but if there is such a thing as redemption in politics Mr Fini deserves his chance. In a political journey lasting many years, Mr Fini has trekked to the centre-ground. In the process he has visited Israel and Auschwitz, jettisoned neo-fascist true believers, including his wife, repeatedly denounced Mussolini’s crimes and formed the PdL with Mr Berlusconi."
The FT (£) reports that Mr Berlusconi will use the summer to try and repair relations with Fini. If this fails he'll seek fresh elections. The Italian President, Girogio Napolitano, may deny the PM this request, however, and invite technocrats including the central bank governor to put together a temporary administration that will steer Italy through its own austerity measures.
* The Guardian reports the group has 33 members but The Economist suggests just 25.