I’ve been planning to write something about the question of whether Britain’s House of Commons will be able to remove Boris Johnson without a general election, and create a cross-party anti-Brexit government of its own. But that will have to wait until tomorrow, because Italy is now confronting much the same issue.
The Italian crisis has been brewing for a while. Readers will remember that following last year’s election a coalition government was constructed under prime minister Giuseppe Conte. It united the populist Five-Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, and the far right League, led by Matteo Salvini.
At the time, I said it would be “a minor miracle” if the parliament ran its full term. Relations between the coalition partners have gone steadily downhill, and Salvini, whose party has at least doubled its support in the polls, has clearly signalled in recent months that he was looking for an opportunity for an early election.
Last week he made it official, declaring that “the only thing is elections” and moving for a vote of no confidence in the Conte government. Parliament will be recalled from its summer break to debate the motion, probably the week after next.
The Five Stars, who have been falling in the polls as the League has been rising, don’t want an election. Nor, presumably, does Conte, who is an independent but closer to them than to Salvini. But they will need support from some other quarter if they are to survive.
The Five Stars have the largest parliamentary group, with 217 of the 630 seats in the lower house. Getting to a majority requires either the centre-left Democratic Party (111 seats) or the centre-right Forza Italia (104 seats) to come on board. (Numbers in the Senate, which can also bring down the government, are in similar proportions.)
Neither, at this stage, looks very likely. The centre-right ran at the last election in coalition with the League (and a smaller far-right party, Brothers of Italy). Salvini then deserted it for the populists, and its support has declined sharply since. It therefore has good reason to want to avoid an election, but there is a long history of bad blood between it and the Five Stars.
This is an occasion where a wise, experienced and patriotic centre-right leader could make a huge difference, negotiating a broad-based coalition with the populists to lock out the far right. But back in this reality, Forza Italia is led by Silvio Berlusconi.
The centre-left is somewhat differently placed. Unlike the centre-right, it has shown some dynamism, electing a new leader, Nicola Zingaretti, and staging a modest recovery in the polls. It probably has less to fear from an election than anyone other than the far right.
But Zingaretti, who comes from his party’s left, also seems to take seriously his obligation to defend liberal and progressive values against the forces that Salvini represents – more so, at least, than his predecessor Matteo Renzi, who vetoed any move towards coalition with the Five Stars after last year’s election, driving them into the arms of the far right.
So Zingaretti might now be tempted by that option. He might also, however, welcome an early election as a chance to thin out the ranks of Renzi’s supporters in the party.
Coalition and election are not necessarily either-or choices. Assuming Conte is defeated in parliament, an election does not automatically follow. President Sergio Mattarella (himself from the centre-left) may try to patch together a caretaker arrangement for the short term, with an election to follow later in the year if nothing better turns up.
It’s also possible that Berlusconi or Zingaretti – or ideally both – could join with Di Maio on a temporary basis to fend off the immediate threat, on the basis of a government of national unity that would prepare to fight the next election on some sort of agreed anti-fascist platform.
That would not be an easy task. The League and Brothers of Italy between them are in the mid-40s in the polls: if that holds up, then against anything other than an unusually united opposition they would win a big majority. It would require the sort of unity among the political class that Italy so conspicuously failed to show on the last occasion that a far-right leader was on the threshold of power, almost a century ago.
That’s the sort of unity that Johnson’s opponents in Britain are also going to need. We’ll have a look at their prospects tomorrow.