John Hooper

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi now tells them to earn more

Rome: As a comforter of the poor, Silvio Berlusconi has secured a place for himself somewhere alongside Marie Antoinette, of `let-them-eat-cake' fame. Asked by a television interviewer what his Government could do to help a worker on a rather low 1,500 euros a month, Italy's richest citizen blithely replied: "The answer of Berlusconi the businessman is: `Try to earn more by getting on with things.'"

His response on Tuesday drew horrified condemnation from his centre-left opponents, but succeeded once again in diverting attention towards Italy's media-savvy Prime Minister as he battles to retain power. Campaigning is under way for general elections on April 9 and 10.

Early travails

Mr. Berlusconi told viewers of a regional television station, Telelombardia, how as a boy during the Second World War he had collected waste paper in the street, and compressed it into balls that could then be resold to people who used it to light their stoves. He also reminisced about scraping together cash by helping out in a local market. Warming to the theme of salvation through self-help, he said: "When someone gave me a camera, I used it to take pictures at funerals [and] weddings. And I took portraits."

Paul Ginsborg, the historian and author of Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony, said the Prime Minister was entitled to claim he had pulled himself up by his boot straps: "His father was the only clerk in a little bank and he certainly had tremendous difficulty finding capital in the early part of his career. He didn't come from a wealthy background, unlike Rupert Murdoch who really was born with a silver spoon in his mouth."

Mr. Berlusconi has in the past described how he took fees for doing the homework of richer boys at his school in Milan. He famously worked himself through university, working at various times as a vacuum cleaner salesman and a cruise ship crooner.

With Italian output stagnant, the economy is seen as the weak point of its entrepreneur-leader. But the Prime Minister has met hostile questioning with confident assurances that everything is going a lot better than people think.

Asked about figures showing rising household debt, Mr. Berlusconi said this just proved "the faith that families have in their own futures. It means the Italians don't think they will have problems in the future paying off debts such as a mortgage for a house."

A statement from Italy's biggest Opposition party, the Democratic Left, began by noting that the Prime Minister had made his comments "without blushing." It said the real scorecard after five years of government by the Right was "Growth, zero; budget deficit at 4.1 per cent [of GDP]; and inflation in goods and services of between nine and 35 per cent."

After five years in which Italy has consistently performed worse than its European partners, the economy was expected to be at the centre of the election campaign. But Mr. Berlusconi has succeeded in diverting the voters' attention towards other controversies.

The most recent blow-up came after it was revealed that the Pope was to meet him in the Vatican shortly before polling day. After an outcry from the Opposition, Mr. Berlusconi announced he would not be going after all.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004