After the funeral of Andrew Bonar Law in 1923, Asquith is supposed to have said “It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier.” Many countries since have been led by relative unknowns, but I can’t think of any in a western democracy that have deserved the title as much as Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
Conte is not a member of parliament and has no political experience; he is a 53-year-old law professor. But before March’s election the populist Five Star Movement named him as a candidate for a ministerial position, and last month, having made a deal with the hard right League (formerly the Northern League), he was given the nod to be prime minister.
The first attempt faltered two weeks ago when president Sergio Mattarella objected to one of the coalition’s ministerial nominees – a proposed Eurosceptic finance minister. This sort of thing happens from time to time in parliamentary systems, and is usually resolved quickly and quietly. Instead, the populists spat the dummy, leaving Mattarella to commission an independent technocrat, Carlo Cottarelli, to form a government, which could only be a prelude to a fresh election.
After a couple of days for reflection, however, the League and the Five Stars decided they were willing to meet the president’s objection. A new candidate was found for the finance ministry and the troublesome Eurosceptic was shunted to the portfolio of European affairs. And last Friday, Conte was sworn in as Italy’s 58th prime minister, the first from the south (the Five Stars’ stronghold) in almost 30 years.
How long he might last, nobody knows. The real powers in the government are its two deputy prime ministers, Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini. Both are, after a fashion [link added], populists, and both are hostile to the powers that be in the European Union, but apart from that they have little enough in common.
Salvini sees himself as the Trumpist leader of Italy’s right, supplanting Silvio Berlusconi – who by comparison seems more like a liberal. The Five Stars, on the other hand, come broadly from the left, and Di Maio gave every hint that he would have preferred to reach an agreement with the centre-left Democratic Party. But the latter refused to play ball.
That refusal may not last forever, and if the centre-left elects a more tractable leader then the Five Stars will have other options. Conversely, although the present parliament gives Salvini no route to a majority other than by co-operation with Di Maio, he may at some point decide to gamble on forcing a new election in the hope of getting a right wing majority. (There will also, of course, be the perennial debates about further changes to the electoral system.)
Once again the important lesson: the hard right can only win office when mainstream parties fail to hold firm against them. Usually it’s the centre-right that’s guilty (and Berlusconi would have willingly played that role in Italy had the numbers been there), but in this case it’s the centre-left that opened the door by forcing the Five Star Movement into Salvini’s embrace.
In the circumstances, one can hardly blame Di Maio, who seems to have got the best deal available. He has driven a wedge between Salvini and Berlusconi, and the new prime minister, while nominally independent, clearly leans more to his side of the coalition. But with the EU and the financial markets both deeply sceptical, Conte and his team are going to have their work cut out to establish some credibility.
The last Italian parliament, against almost universal expectations, lasted its full five-year term. It will be a minor miracle if this one repeats the achievement.