The political tide turns in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi's fragile grip on power seems to be slipping as Italians vote against his policies

The first I heard of the news was an excited phone call from my father, who delivered a gruff, breathless cry of victory down the line: "We got him!"

Today saw the results of four referendum votes in Italy to repeal Berlusconi-era legislation on nuclear power, water privatisation and trial immunity for government ministers. The last of these has been fundamental in allowing the semi-despotic prime minister to continue his rule free of the tiresome hassle of legal action on charges of corruption and sexual harassment.

This referendum has finally given Italian voters the opportunity to bring the charade to an end, with a resounding 95 per cent of voters coming down against the government's policies. This represents a huge victory for the ideological left in the country, who have been conducting a frenzied campaign against the prime minister in the preceding weeks.

But more than that, this vote represents a fundamental, ground-level shift in Italian politics. No longer can Berlusconi be upheld as the licentious, yet charming rogue who all Italians secretly aspire to be. In the international community, his continual grip on power has been regarded with a form of open-mouthed incredulity, tempered with mild amusement at the poor, delusional voters who keep him in the top spot. Not anymore.

Italians have come out in their thousands -- the turnout for the referendums was 57 per cent, easily surpassing the 50 per cent quorum needed to validate the vote -- to express their deep dissatisfaction and disassociation with their increasingly beleaguered ruler. Couple today's result with Berlusconi's heavy loss in last month's local elections, and the message is resoundingly clear.

Italians, it seems, have finally woken up to what the rest of the world has known for years - that their prime minister is nothing but an orange-skinned, white-toothed buffoon, masquerading as an intelligent life-form. And they have had enough.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.