Analysis. Sensing his fall from power, ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has dictated conditions to avoid a no-confidence vote. He doesn’t actually want to destroy the government. He just wants it weak so he can return to power.

‘Like a scorpion,’ Renzi starts a time bomb on Italy’s governing alliance

It’s not a crisis yet, but on Wednesday night Matteo Renzi stretched the fabric of the government alliance close to the breaking point. He was happy to set the timer on the bomb that could bring down the government: “If the statute of limitations law is not changed by Easter, we will present a motion of no-confidence against [Alfonso] Bonafede,” the Justice Minister. 

He followed that up with a proposal for constitutional reform that would shut down the legislature and blow up the proportional representation law, with the direct election of the prime minister, who would become something like “the mayor of Italy”: “It’s the only way out of this muck”. And with what government would that work? “Two options: the Nazareno model with Giuseppe Conte as prime minister or an institutional government.”

Then he opened up a new front, that of the economy, bringing out the big guns: “The recession is coming and jobs will crater. We have to unblock public works, and if Conte wants a shock plan, he will start by eliminating the citizenship income.” And he made a shameless attack against the PD: “They are like female hygiene products: they absorb everything. They’ve become law-and-order types.” Regarding the fate of the legislature, however, there will be “no vote until 2021.”

Renzi’s move is more subtle than it appears. The former premier knows that his proposal for constitutional reform will be rejected, and with prejudice. He likewise knows that his economic recipes, set to be unveiled on Thursday, will not be implemented, because the Five Stars will not accept them. Thus, he knows that the time for him to still remain a part of this majority is over. But he doesn’t want to be the one who heads towards the exits, and he is angling to get himself kicked out and play the victim. It’s the eternal game of political hot potato. 

The whole interview with Bruno Vespa was designed to exasperate the PD, already at the end of its rope, after the umpteenth occasion when Italia Viva voted with the right wingers, most recently on the Costa Bill in the Justice Committee in the Chamber of Deputies. The threat of a motion of no confidence against Bonafede—a gesture that all by itself would make it impossible to live together with the M5S in the same majority, regardless of the outcome of the vote—serves to raise the temperature even higher.

In contrast to what most people would think, however, Renzi is hoping for cooler heads to prevail. He does not want a crisis that would lead straight to snap elections. He is counting on the Forza Italia senators close to Mara Carfagna, and, even more, on the “neo-Christian Democrat” senators around Paolo Romani and Antonio Saccone, to avoid a real crisis and the dissolution of Parliament. 

There are indeed some of these “cooler heads.” They are working hard to form a group, under the respectable symbol of the UDC. There are not many of them, if we don’t count possible defections from the Italia Viva group itself: around a dozen, enough to save Giuseppe Conte but leave him reeling from the blow. 

This is what Matteo Renzi is aiming at: a government too weak to withstand the blows of the next regional elections and an economic storm that promises to be truly wild. He’s thinking that by June, in a secret vote and—at least according to Renzi’s calculations—with a recession looming, the government will be decimated, and the platform of the young man from Rignano, discounted today, will rise once again from the ashes.

Matteo Salvini did not hesitate to reject Renzi’s proposal with the contempt it deserves: “There is nothing new here.” The reaction of the Five Stars was short and to the point: “Bonafede will not be touched.” The PD rejected en masse the ideas of its former secretary, with the head of its delegation in the government, Dario Franceschini, among the toughest critics: “Renzi is like the scorpion in Aesop’s fable”—that is, he kills the frog that is rescuing him even at the cost of drowning.

But the anathemas are not enough, and there’s another player in the game: Conte himself. His countermove is already prepared—at least on paper. He will appear before Parliament, but not to ask for blind confidence. He will put forward the 2020-2023 Plan, a list of measures to relaunch the economy, and that’s how he will see who is truly in the majority and who isn’t. It won’t be possible for Renzi to continue to take potshots at the government after giving his confidence vote to the program. And if he refuses to give his support, he will be the one to quit the majority, left firmly holding the hot potato.

That’s when the “cooler heads” will probably come out in the open, to ensure the government wins the vote of confidence. Then, things will go on, with an even weaker majority—but so it goes. The market will have spoken.

However, there remains one particular unknown: the Five Star Movement. Will it be willing to swallow being in a majority with the former Berlusconians? There’s no doubt that the ministers would be willing to swallow this, and other things besides. There is much more unease among the party’s senators. But the real trouble might be brewing among what remains of the Five Stars’ base.

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