Italy crisis: PM Letta wins vote after Berlusconi U-turn

Italian Premier Enrico Letta has won a confidence vote after a last-minute U-turn by former PM Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi had initially promised to topple the government by withdrawing his party's support - a move which prompted the Senate vote. But he backed down when it became clear that several of his senators would back the government. Mr Letta had earlier said that if he were defeated in the vote, it might prove a "fatal risk" for Italy.

In the event he won easily: the Senate voted 235 to 70 in favour of the government. About a dozen of Berlusconi's most hardline followers left the chamber and did not vote at all.

'Internal strife' Continue reading the main story Analysis image of Alan Johnston Alan Johnston BBC News, Rome Silvio Berlusconi believed he was in a position to torpedo this government. And when he pulled out his ministers, he did tear a hole in it. But he did not manage to sink it. It was going to be patched up with the help of rebels from his own ranks, and go sailing on. As the scale of the mutiny became clear, Mr Berlusconi knew he could only try to limit the damage.

When he rose to speak he was forced into a humiliating U-turn. He said he and his whole party would support the government that he had just tried to destroy. Mr Berlusconi emerges from this affair weakened - his credibility undermined. His capacity to rock Italian politics to its core has been diminished. Over the weekend, Berlusconi demanded that five ministers from his centre-right People of Freedom party (PDL) leave the government and bring it down.

But some of his closest colleagues said they would defy him, and the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says it gradually became clear that Berlusconi had badly overreached himself.

Our correspondent says the three-time prime-minister has been forced into a humiliating climb-down and will emerge a weakened figure with his capacity to influence Italian politics diminished. When he finally rose to speak in the Senate, Berlusconi said: "Italy needs a government that can produce structural and institutional reforms. We have decided, not without internal strife, to back the confidence vote.

" In his address to the Senate, Mr Letta had defended his government's performance and said Italy "runs a risk, a fatal risk" if it were to fall. He said: "Give us your confidence to realise [our] objectives. Give us your confidence for all that has been accomplished... a confidence vote for Italy and Italians.'' 'Alibi' Berlusconi had accused Mr Letta of allowing his "political assassination through judicial means" - a reference to Berlusconi's criminal conviction for tax fraud in August.

A Senate committee will vote on whether to expel Berlusconi because of his conviction later this week. Berlusconi ordered his ministers to leave the government, ostensibly not because of the attempts to throw him out of the Senate but because he opposed an impending rise in VAT.

But the prime minister accused Berlusconi of using the VAT issue as an "alibi" for his own personal concerns. He refused to accept the resignation of the five PDL ministers and called the vote of confidence. Italy parliament graphic