In a last-minute U-turn, Silvio Berlusconi has decided that his party would support the government after all - turning a potential showdown into a mere formality. Nonetheless, what just happened in the Italian Senate does have consequences for the future of Italian politics. Here are a couple of thoughts.
1. Letta stays on, but uncertainty remains over what his government can deliver
The first, and most obvious, immediate consequence of today's vote is that Enrico Letta can stay on as Italian Prime Minister and maintains, at least on paper, his overwhelming parliamentary majority. However, it remains to be seen what Letta and his cabinet can deliver in terms of bold, concrete measures to get Italy going again - not least because some fundamental differences between the parties forming Italy's ruling coalition will remain.
One may argue that, faced with a party mutiny ahead of today's vote, Berlusconi would have finally learnt his lesson and would think twice before triggering new crises in future. But we wouldn't rule out new coalition rows. Berlusconi is famous for his CEO-style handling of his party, and he tends to take all the big decisions on his own - which makes him a very unpredictable coalition partner.
Another important issue is: how long will Letta stay in office for? It's no secret that both him and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano would like the current government to continue at least until after Italy's rotating EU Presidency (July-December 2014) - and then perhaps go to early elections at the beginning of 2015. This would still be much earlier than 2018, when the current parliamentary term is supposed to end.
Questions will also remain over whether, if the crisis deepened once again, Italy would really be able to gain access to the ECB’s bond-buying programme, the OMT. As we mentioned above, Letta has clearly won the day - but uncertainty remains over his government's ability to push through unpopular measures.
Crucially, the ECB has made it clear that any country accessing the OMT must have a credible government in place to enforce the necessary conditionality attached to bond purchases (very likely to involve significant structural reform and budget cuts).
2. This is not the end for Berlusconi, but he's just been dealt a hard blow
There's another reason why today's confidence vote is significant. Looking beyond the appearances (and the last-minute coup de théâtre) Silvio Berlusconi has, in substance, seen his plan to bring Letta's government down disrupted by a rebellion from within his own party. Last weekend's decision to pull his ministers out of cabinet has therefore proved a miscalculation, and will have at least two consequences:
- Berlusconi's threats to bring the government down if he's voted out of parliament as a result of his recent tax fraud conviction are no longer credible;
- 25 senators from Berlusconi's party have this morning announced the creation of a breakaway group in the Italian Senate, irrespective of how the rest of the party would have voted. Though far from certain at this stage, today's defectors may well decide to follow up and quit Berlusconi's party - which in turn may reduce Il Cavaliere's electoral strength.
These are our preliminary thoughts. We'll continue monitoring the situation in Italy very closely, so keep following us on Twitter @OpenEurope and @LondonerVince for all the updates.