Analysis. The 5 Star Movement is caught in the whirlwind of the government crisis, attempting to claim its centrality. ‘We are the backbone of this legislature.’

‘An anthill gone mad’: Inside the party of Conte after government collapse

“If Conte resigns, the 5 Star Movement will implode. And the Parliament will become an anthill gone mad.” This saying had been circulating inside and outside government circles for days now. It was a line that somehow acted as a restraining force: “It is only possible to enlarge this current majority, one cannot leave any space for the unexpected,” was the logical consequence. Now, that space is about to open up. Conte is trying to carry himself and the majority across to the next government. And the Five Stars are afraid that they’re being held hostage to too many variables, events that they do not control.

The day in which, for the first time, they admitted out loud that “a phase has ended” began with the convocation of a joint meeting of the party’s parliamentary groups. But that meeting would never take place. The M5S would take another 24 hours before figuring out whether to go “forward with Conte”—and whether it was willing to do that at all costs.

“The passage to the so-called Conte 3 government is now inevitable and is the only way out from this mad crisis. A necessary step for the enlargement of the majority.” With these words, Ettore Licheri and Davide Crippa, the group leaders in the Senate and the Chamber, announced that the party line has changed: the leader of the government was ready to resign and formally set off the crisis.

The scenario of confusion within the main force of the (former) majority returned to the forefront, as the front that had been put up in the previous days fell apart. It was a coincidence of constraints, a cascade of conditions that drove the Prime Minister (and the M5S) into a dead end street. The choice of linking the destiny of the M5S to that of Conte had automatically entailed the refusal to consider any possibility of him resigning and any possibility of a Conte 3 government. From this position came the clear choice to close off any dialogue with Matteo Renzi.

Among the parliamentarians, there were doubts and fears from the beginning, but this strategy gained confidence from the reassurances coming from the Palazzo Chigi: the so-called “responsible votes” would come out. Indeed, them joining the majority would have been an opportunity to get rid of the dead weight of Renzi’s party and march forward even faster towards the management of the Recovery Fund. As is now clear, this did not happen. Those “responsible votes” have not shown up, and their demurring led to the crumbling of the guarantees provided by the top leaders to the parliamentary groups.

However, in the hours before Conte’s resignation, there was yet another element of rigidity and limitation which came to the fore, closing off their room for maneuver even more. This happened on Sunday, when first Luigi Di Maio and then all the top M5S leadership lined up behind Alfonso Bonafede, the Justice Minister and head of the M5S’s delegation in the government, whose report faced being voted down in the Senate. The vote on the report of the Justice Minister is not equivalent to a vote of confidence, so Conte had tried to downplay it in every way during the final hours: by playing down the justice reform agenda, by separating the issue from the fate of the majority, even by speaking of the minister’s removal. Those were delicate and perhaps unrealistic attempts at maneuvering, which paradoxically showed all their weakness when Di Maio posted a photo on social media of him embracing Bonafede, with the slogan “United and compact.”

This boastful display of firmness, the umpteenth one, came during the hours when the reality of the new phase was coalescing. It seemed to be such a rookie move that it raised doubts about the real intentions of the Foreign Minister. Why, after employing such caution before, did he put himself out there, on the eve of the collapse, alongside the weakest minister? The suspicion was that he had decided to put Bonafede back in the spotlight to strike a blow against Conte and reset the game, putting the M5S back at the center, freeing the party from its ties to the resigning prime minister.

Vito Crimi also changed his tone. And the M5S changed its narrative: the “party of Conte,” the parliamentary base that was decisive for his stay at the Palazzo Chigi, is now claiming its central role independent of him. “We are the backbone of this legislature. As always, we will assume our responsibilities, having as our reference point the good of the citizens, and we will be guarantors of the delicate steps that await our Republic,” said the interim M5S leader as he convened the M5S ministers for a preparatory summit to the one with Conte.

“We remain at Conte’s side,” assured the group leaders. “We will continue to pursue the interest of the citizens exclusively. We aim to get out as soon as possible from this situation of uncertainty that isn’t helpful. We must pick up the pace to implement the Recovery, to follow the vaccination plan, to proceed to give compensation for the companies most damaged by the pandemic.”

However, at this point, nothing is guaranteed.

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