there is something about the Italian leader that makes me warm to him
he defends his remarks with all the confidence and insouciance of one who has a personal fortune estimated at $12 billion, making him the richest man in Europe
I cannot help hoping that this peacock will be given one last chance to convert his outrageousness into real political bravery, and reform the Italian economy
Berlusconi has his faults, but dullness isn’t one of them
Before we go any further, I want to make it absolutely clear that I have not received a penny from Silvio Berlusconi.
Yes, I have been to his socking great villa, strewn with helicopter pads, amphitheatres and thalassotherapy baths, on a Sardinian promontory. In common with other world leaders, I have been driven by Mr B around the estate, and admired his demented Dr No-style cactus collection, including a spiny mutant which he likened to “the brain of my finance minister”.
It is true that I have eaten a large quantity of the Italian prime minister’s pistachio ice cream – which he personally rustled up from the kitchen – and drunk about a quart of iced tea. It is true that our conversation became extremely animated, though when he says that I “took advantage of him” in the cicada-chirping dusk, having plied him with “several bottles of champagne”, I fear his memory is playing him false. I reported some of the more exciting things he said, and ever since then he has shown a stony refusal to pay off my mortgage or even to help me invest in a hedge fund.
So I hope you will agree that I still have a faint trace of impartiality in declaring there is something about the Italian leader that makes me warm to him; and it would be sad if he were to lose next month in the Italian elections to one as spine-crackingly worthy as Romano Prodi.
Silvio Berlusconi is a landmark of modern politics. There is no one to touch him for sheer exuberant outrageousness. In his speech, in his dress, his bandanas, his face-lifts, his ludicrous 1950s cruise-ship sexism, he is a standing reproach to the parade of platitudinous Pooters that pass across the stage of international diplomacy.
He once called an important press conference with one of the Continent’s leading Euro-bores, Anders Fogh Rassmussen, the Danish prime minister, and announced that he was going to introduce Mr Rassmussen to his wife, because the Dane was so good-looking that he might divert her from the man with whom she was then romantically entangled, a chemistry professor called Cacciari.
Dio mio! said the journalists. Has any Italian prime minister ever behaved like that before? Has any politician ever cracked a joke about his wife’s boyfriend? Let alone in the presence of some po-faced, bearded and deeply mystified Dane? Only Berlusconi could get away with it, and – as he doubtless calculated – the remark does not seem to have hurt him in the polls, earning him as it did the sympathy of every cuckold and straying wife in Italy, a significant chunk of the electorate.
Of course there are aspects of his premiership that are sinister, and troubling. How can the Italians vote for a man who owns 90 per cent of Italy’s independent television sector, as well as all sorts of newspapers, supermarkets, football clubs and heaven knows what else? This is a man so ruthless and so powerful that he has actually changed the law so that he cannot be prosecuted for his alleged corruption, as long as he is in office.
How can the Italian electorate tolerate these epic conflicts of interest? It is not as though he has lived up to his original billing as a man who was going to reform Italy with Thatcherite zeal. The euro experiment is proving particularly tough on the Italians (as this column has been predicting for about 15 years), since they cannot devalue as they used to, and, while Germany’s share of world exports has remained steady at about 11 per cent, Italy’s has declined from 4.5 per cent to 2.6 per cent.
The Italians never emulated the British, in switching from manufacturing to service industries, and now all their beautiful leather and textile firms are being pounded by the Chinese. The poor Italians are so nervous about their financial position that the birth rate has fallen to 1.3 per mother, and 40 per cent of 30- to 34-year-olds are still so strapped for cash that they are living with their parents.
Berlusconi could have done far more, in his first term, to tame the unions and reform the labour markets and generally get Anglo-Saxon on the economy; and everyone agrees that he has been a disappointment, and that his attacks on the size of the state have had all the incisiveness of limp fettucine.
How can they still like him, then, this former member of the P2 Masonic lodge, this buddy of Bettino Craxi, this man over whom there will always be a Vesuvian cloud of suspicion? How can they continue, in such large numbers, to give their affection to a man who is so often the object of international hilarity?
The answer is that they like him not in spite of the gaffes, but because of the gaffes. It is Berlusconi’s genius that he has become the only world leader in the great queue of grey-suited line-toers who can be consistently relied on to say something eye-popping, and then, rather than apologise, he defends his remarks with all the confidence and insouciance of one who has a personal fortune estimated at $12 billion, making him the richest man in Europe.
Did you hear the Berlusconi joke about the man with Aids, whose doctor told him to take a mud-bath? “It won’t cure you,” said the doctor, “but you’ll get used to being buried.”
Now, if a British MP had used that joke, publicly or privately, it would, without question, have been the end of his or her career. It is tasteless in the extreme and politically incorrect to the point of insanity. I can imagine that sensitive readers will be shuddering with amazement.
But Berlusconi not only said it: he repeated it, and then said that his critics deserved to be buried themselves for their sense of humour failure.
He said that he had used his “playboy skills” to persuade the Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, to allow the European Food Standards Agency to be located in Italy, an analysis that so offended the feminist Finns that there was a diplomatic crisis.
And there is more. I do not defend his jokes, but they help to make him fallible and human, and to explain his popularity. I cannot help hoping that this peacock will be given one last chance to convert his outrageousness into real political bravery, and reform the Italian economy; and, if he fails, then by all means put him on trial.