I have been trying to imagine what the general reaction would be if Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major or Margaret Thatcher suddenly announced they were planning to run for PM again. Regardless of their respective talents, appeal or skill, I think I only have to pose the question to get most people’s answers. There have been exceptions, but once is usually thought to be enough. Not for Silvio Berlusconi though…
Mrs T is said to be unwell, yet she is alone among the four who is older than Berlusconi who, not for the first time, has given Italy his well-known mix of shock, energy, comedy and charisma, and announced he is back in the race, bringing a premature end to the technocratic austerity crisis government of Mario Monti in the process.
Yet for every shaking head I have met in two days in Rome, there is another that shrugs, sighs and-or smiles and says ‘you have to hand it to him…’
What exactly one is expected to hand to him I am not sure, but he is back doing what he likes best – making waves, making the weather, upsetting the establishment whilst also being desperate to be the dominant factor within it.
I have been speaking at a conference here and have just done a long arranged interview with La Stampa. Originally it was planned to be about Europe, the eurozone crisis, the role of communications within it, and a bit of coalition-plogy, and whither Britain (towards the exit door if David Cameron’s make it up as you strategy (sic) goes unchecked)
But instead every question had as its backdrop Berlusconi – could he win, should Mario Monti stand, how should he play Berlusconi if he does, is Berlusconi a threat or an opportunity for Pier Luigi Bersani (main contender for the left), can Berlusconi get votes back from the anti-politics Five Star Movement?
The rational part of me says someone who has been around so long, the cause and focus of so much controversy, and for whom no amount of hair dye and weaving can hide the reality that he is half way through his eighth decade, has no chance. But perhaps more so in Italy than elsewhere, politics is as much about emotion as reason. Monti was what the country thought they needed as the crisis hit Italy, but it remains to be seen whether his popularity as a technocrat will translate when – and if – he decides to run for elected office.
The rational part of me says that the Italians cannot ignore the potential risk to reputation and market stability that the mere suggestion of a Berlusconi return is provoking. But you just need to sit amid a discussion on the subject to know that one can play both ways too.
The journalist from La Stampa asked me who would win? I had just done a speech to the energy group Enel in which I emphasised the importance of clear, thought through positions rooted in an understanding of strategy. All of which flew out of the window as I told the unvarnished truth … ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue.’
This will be an ‘anything can happen’ election. If I had to put my life on it, I would say Berlusconi cannot win. But I wouldn’t put my life on it.