Cameron flies to Rome as Berlusconi teeters on the brink

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron has arrived late for an official visit to Rome, amid a crunch vote deciding the future of Silvio Berlusconi.

The prime minister is understood to have missed a one-to-one meeting with his Italian counterpart, but the two men shared dinner later in what was described as “positive and contructive” dialogue.

Just hours before he arrived, Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived one of the tightest and most important votes of his political career in the Chamber of Deputies.

Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house and Mr Berlusconi’s committed opponent, agreed on Monday that the chamber should vote on the case of Giacomo Caliendo, a junior justice minister in Mr Berlusconi’s government.

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Mr Caliendo is under investigation on suspicion of belonging to a secret cabal which is alleged to have acted as Mr Berlusconi’s dirty tricks unit, by influencing judges sitting on cases vital to the Italian prime minister’s interests and digging up dirt on his opponents.

Mr Caliendo has refused to step down and Mr Berlusconi has backed him. Mr Fini argues that any government minister under investigation by the authorities should resign.

Thirty-three deputies recently formed their own group in the lower house which is loyal to Mr Fini, leaving Mr Berlusconi without a majority.

The Italian leader escaped humiliation and a possible snap election when deputies loyal to Mr Fini abstained from the vote, leaving him with 299 votes to the opposition’s 229.

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Fini are long-time political allies from the start of the Italian prime minister’s career. They co-founded the People of Freedom party and only split recently after bickering for months on a number of topics.

Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi faced severe embarrassment over a corruption inquiry in which Maria Teresa De Nicolo, a prostitute who spent a night with him, claimed she shared his bed with two other women.

“I, the two girls from Rome and Berlusconi were in the bed,” Ms De Nicolo was quoted as saying by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Mr Cameron’s rapid visit and late arrival cemented the impression that the British prime minister was concerned about his proximty to the flamboyant and embattled Italian leader.

Mr Berlusconi has faced sexual and corruption scandals before and survived to tell the tale, but his current predicaments are threatening to overrun his administration.