Into the final battle
Silvio Berlusconi is setting out to form a right-wing super party. It is supposed to secure Il Cavaliere’s legacy – and succession.
The media tycoon and four times Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, known as Il Cavaliere (The Knight), has returned from the dead so many times to fight another day that he reminds me of the 11th century Castilian warlord Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as El Cid (The Lord).
When El Cid died in 1099 during a battle with the Moors his men strapped him to an iron frame attached to the saddle of his faithful horse and sent him out to lead them in a last charge against the Infidel. The Moors thought that El Cid had risen from the dead and fled the battlefield terrified.
Well, now the 84-year-old Cavaliere who once worked as a cruise ship crooner but is these days worth 7 billion euros according to Forbes magazine is being strapped onto his horse for what must surely be his last political battle – the creation of a right-wing super party to secure his legacy – and succession.
He is largely "working from home" at the villa in Châteauneuf-de-Grasse in Provence not far from Nice, owned by Marina, the eldest of his five children and chief executive of his media empire. Via zoom he takes part in votes of the European Parliament where he is a Euro MP and talks on a merger with Matteo Salvini, leader of the radical right-wing Lega which jointly heads the polls with the post-fascist Fratelli d'Italia.
Both are polling about 21% compared to Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia, a shadow of its former self, which has withered as Berlsuconi has withered, and is polling only about 7%. But the other two parties of the right need Forza Italia if they are to form a majority at the next election which must be held by June 2023.
Berlusconi knows that when he dies Forza Italia dies with him. He is Forza Italia. So its only chance of survival is a marriage-like merger – or so he reasons. That Forza Italia has three ministers in the Mario Draghi government of national unity gives him more leverage than he has had since he was last Prime Minister in 2011.
Unlike El Cid, of course, Il Cav. even now is not quite dead, having survived prostate cancer in 1997, had a pacemaker fitted in 2006 and a heart valve replaced in 2016. In 2009, a demonstrator hurled an alabaster statue of Milan cathedral at him from close range which broke his nose and two teeth. He has had at least one facelift and hair transplant and when appearing in public he cakes himself in make-up which just about looks all right on tv but in the flesh, face to face, grotesque.
To cap it all, last September he caught Covid-19 which he described after 10 days in a Milan hospital as "the most dangerous challenge of my life", adding with characteristic cockiness: "I told myself: 'You've got away with it again'." But he was in and out of hospital in March and April this year due to severe "long" Covid.
From the moment when Silvio il Magnifico - as I call him - entered politics in 1994 those in charge of civilisation in Italy – the post-commie prosecco progressives - decided that in order to deliver us from evil they had to subject Berlusconi to the most relentless campaign of media and judicial demonization ever mounted against an elected free world leader– even more so than the more recent woke liberal-left campaign against Donald Trump.
Berlusconi was 57 when he decided to "save Italy from the communists", as he put it, after Milan investigating magistrates orchestrated a judicial revolution known as Mani Pulite that exposed the endemic corruption of the political parties which had dominated Italian politics since the fall of fascism in 1945. The only party left in the game was the Partito Comunista Italiano - the largest communist party in Europe outside the by then – ex - Soviet bloc - which had mysteriously escaped judicial scrutiny.
In January 1994, just two months before the general election, he announced a new party – Forza Italia – by pre-recorded video which he sent to the main tv channels. He was inspired by Erasmus of Rotterdam's In Praise of Folly (1509), he told Forza Italia's first party conference in February 1994 on the eve of the election, which argued that the most important decisions do not come from "reasoning" or "out of the brain" but "out of a forward-looking visionary folly". Incredibly, Forza Italia won.
The last time Berlusconi was elected Prime Minister - 2008 – he won with the largest majority of any post-war Italian Prime Minister. But his victory – according to the left - placed Italian democracy in mortal peril. Yet apparently the fact that in the 10 years since Berlusconi's resignation in 2011 Italy has not had an elected Prime Minister poses no threat. Since 2011, there have been six – all chosen in a back-room stitch-up.
The muzzled Italian media assured the international media who repeated the charge around the world: however simpatico Berlusconi appeared to be he was a dictator who had muzzled the media and used it to brainwash the Italians.
He was able to do this – so they said – because he owned three of the four national private television channels and as Premier controlled key staff appointments at Italy’s three state-owned television channels.
Fat lot of good that did him. The media in Italy - regardless of Berlusconi - was and remains predominently left-wing like the media everywhere in the western world.
But they had to explain somehow why it was that Italians kept on voting for this tycoon who famously told Boris Johnson and me in an interview for The Spectator in 2003 when Boris was editor that Benito Mussolini, unlike Saddam Hussein, did not kill his political opponents but exiled them on Italy’s breathtakingly beautiful islands.
It was the truth, more or less, but the Italian media went bananas for a fortnight and said that to say such a thing – the truth - was proof that he is a fascist.
Yet the Italians continued to vote for him.
He was the closest the Italians have ever come to a free marketeer, was conservative on social issues, and above all a deal-maker and therefore flexible and tolerant. I cannot recall him being racist, unless you count, as many do, his remark in 2001 just after 9/11: 'We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and – in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights.'
In 2008, he paid Colonel Gheddafi several billion euros to stop illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Is that racist?
The Italian judiciary which like every institution in Italy, even the Round Table, is highly politicised and often very left wing – especially in Milan - swiftly entered the fray accusing him of corruption in November 1994.
By 2018, Berlusconi had spent 770 million euros on 105 lawyers since he had become a politician, he said, and endured more than 3,000 court hearings.
But the more Italy's journalists and judges branded Berlusconi a fascist, mafioso, briber, tax dodger and paedofile the more Italians voted for him. It made him a martyr.
His only conviction was in 2013 for tax evasion by an off-shore company for which he had no legal responsibility at the time of the alleged offences many years previously. Given a four-year jail sentence, automatically reduced to one, and banned from public office for five years, he avoided jail only because he was over 70.
In the Bunga Bunga trial in which he was acquitted in 2015 of prostituting a minor in 2010 – 17-year-old Moroccan belly-dancer known as "Ruby the Heart-Stealer" both parties denied sex and there were no witnesses. He was a prostate cancer survivor with a dodgy heart and well into his seventies. The accusation was absurd but it made him a global laughing stock. And yet he was able to laugh at himself which was an incredible achievement. As he said: "I am not a saint, you've all understood that." And more bluntly. "It's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay." Insisting that he had never paid for sex he explained:"I have never understood what satisfaction there is if the pleasure of conquest is absent." Meno male che Silvio c'è!
Nicholas Farrell is the author of Mussolini — A New Life.