The Berlusconi-Murdoch war continues

Who will win this billionaire smackdown?

Among those who will relish Silvio Berlusconi's present woes is Rupert Murdoch. The media mogul has reserved a special enmity for the Italian premier ever since he doubled the rate of VAT on satellite television to 20 per cent.

The subtle response of Murdoch's Sky Italia was to screen the film Killing Silvio, which depicts a man's quest to assassinate Berlusconi.

Later, the Murdoch-owned Times and New York Post relentlessly recorded Berlusconi's sexual peccadilloes and financial misdemeanours. The prime minister has since threatened to sue the newspapers in question for libel.

The feud between the pair got hotter last month when Murdoch's News Corp announced that it had filed a lawsuit against two of the firms in Berlusconi's media empire. Murdoch claimed that RTI and Publitalia -- the TV and advertising arms of Mediaset -- had refused to accept advertising from Sky Italia.

So, after Berlusconi was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, it was no surprise to see the Times's leader denounce the Italian premier with a ferocity unmatched by its competitors:

Little could have more clearly shown Mr Berlusconi's contempt for the law than his lawyer's Orwellian assertion to the court that the prime minister was no longer "first among equals" but ought to be considered "first above equals" . . . He has sought to live above the law; now he will be consumed by it. It is surely time that Mr Berlusconi stop putting his own interests ahead of his country's. He should resign.

Confronted by the struggle between Murdoch and Berlusconi, many may be tempted to echo Henry Kissinger's remark during the Iran-Iraq war: "It's a pity they can't both lose."

But for once we should be grateful for the "Dirty Digger" and his formidable media machine. His self-interested war against Berlusconi may yet hasten the decline of a man who continues to subject democracy and civility to remarkable degradation.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.