The blusterbuss that is Silvio Berlusconi is firing full blast and all Italy is, yet again, watching him fight his way out of his latest troubles. They include his umpteenth brush with Italy’s magistrates, a damning legal judgment that he bribed David Mills, the British lawyer, a cool $600,000 to commit perjury; divorce, for the second time, in this Catholic country – a divorce blamed by Veronica Lario, his wife, on her septuagenarian spouse’s “consorting with minors”; and his implausible friendship with a Neapolitan family remarkable only for the beauty of Noemi Letizia, their daughter.
Any one of these scandals would destroy most politicians. Even in Italy. Voters here can and do get angry. This is, after all, the country where, in the 1990s, the force of their disgust vaporised an entire political generation and dissolved both the long-dominant Christian Democrats and the Socialist party.
Yet they show no sign as yet of destroying Berlusconi. Italy is stirred, all right; he is the talk of every bar and some Italians want to see him behind bars. The normally supportive church rumbles disapprovingly. Yet his extraordinary popularity has barely been shaken, not even by the Letizia scandal.
After a bruising fortnight of daily demands for the full truth in the centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, which accuses Berlusconi of fabricating “a rosary of lies”, Dario Franceschini, leader of the opposition Democratic party, tried a knockout punch: “I ask Italians. Would you want your children to be brought up by this man?” It was Franceschini who hit the ropes.
Not only did all five Berlusconi children spring furiously to “this man’s” defence but, in a snap poll, 72% of people said they most certainly or probably would and only 20% thought not. Italians do not care to be preached at, whether by priggish priests (not known in too many parishes for sexual abstinence), by the righteous political left or by foreigners accusing them of voting for someone who is a “danger to democracy”.
So he turns up at Noemi’s 18th birthday party in a Neapolitan suburb (as he never, says his wife, turned up to his own children’s parties); so he gives the girl a £5,300 pendant (a bit much, but he can afford it); so he has more ways of saying how and when he came to know her than there are colours in a cassata ice-cream; so it’s all uncomfortably similar to other rumours about nubile “interns” at his Sardinian summer villa. And yet: so, too, do many people believe him, as they would not other politicians, when he calls an ordinary family his friends; when he points out that he himself drew attention to the relationship by attending Noemi’s party; and when he furiously asserts that the only question anyone has the right to ask is whether he has had “a, let’s say, spicy relationship with a minor” and that the answer is “absolutely not”.
La Repubblica predicts these scandals will hit his People of Liberty party (PdL) in this week’s European elections, adding that less than 40% of the vote would be a “defeat”. Some defeat: just below 40% would still be higher than the 37.4% the PdL scored in last year’s general election, which in Italian terms was a landslide victory. The Democrats, by contrast, are expected to poll a miserable 26%-29%, worse even than last year’s 33%. And Berlusconi’s personal ratings are still well ahead of his party’s.
The fact that Berlusconi is the only politician anyone is talking about (ahead of elections that bore the Italians as much as they do the rest of us) could nudge his opponents deeper into the ditch. “Il Cavaliere” has never doubted that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Italians do find some Berlusconi gaffes cringe-making – not so much the off-colour sexual jokes as things such as his calling Barack Obama “suntanned” or being told to pipe down by the Queen – and they do wish he were less of a loose cannon. When he paraded a bevy of TV belles as prospective MEPs, his fuming wife said they had been rolled out “to entertain the emperor”. He was quick to drop all but one. Even so, Italians had a good chuckle when he retorted that at least PdL candidates would be better looking than the “malodorous and badly dressed” opposition.
Part of Berlusconi’s secret is that he doesn’t talk down to people and he has never pretended that his feet are not made of the same clay. He may be a bit of a lecher, they say, but it may be more talk than trousers and at least he isn’t a snob. That common touch compensates for a lot. It can even be inspirational: who but Berlusconi would have responded to the earthquake in L’Aquila by announcing he would host July’s G8 summit there?
Above all, this self-made billionaire stands outside the casta, the pampered political class that Italians hold in broadly deserved contempt. They reckon he gets things done. He said he would sort out the Naples rubbish crisis and he has; he promised to abolish dwellings tax and he has; earthquake victims are seeing action, not just hearing talk. And when Berlusconi proposes cutting parliament down to 100 MPs, “Magari”, say the voters, “If only.”
“The thing foreigners don’t get about Berlusconi,” a journalist said to me the other day, “is just what jerks we’ve had to put up with.” If the economy really crashes, that would trip him. But not those feet of clay.