Italy: Cabinet darling turns back on the party

Under-fire Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been dealt another political blow - his favourite female MP, a beauty queen turned cabinet minister, is quitting the government.

Berlusconi, 74, personally appointed Mara Carfagna, 35, to the position of equal opportunities minister and she was quickly dubbed the most attractive politician in the world.

She turned to politics after a career on television, as well as an appearance in Miss Italy and also posed topless and semi-naked for photo shoots - always stressing none of the pictures "were erotic".

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However over the weekend she announced she was quitting "the party, the cabinet and the government" after a row with members of Mr Berlus- coni's ruling People of Freedom party over the handling of a scandal concerning the running of a waste disposal site near her native southern region of Campania, around Naples.

She said she had been sidelined in the government and criticised Mr Berlusconi for losing control of his party which had degenerated into a series of feuding "gangs".

Mr Berlusconi was said to be disappointed over her decision and even called her begging her to change her mind, but when she refused he told aides: "I created her and this is how she repays me."

The media tycoon turned politician is already facing a crisis after his long-term ally Gian-franco Fini and 33 rebel MPs pulled out of his governing coalition, forcing a confidence vote next month which if he loses could lead to fresh elections.

Italian daily Corriere Della Sera said Mr Berlusconi "always had a place in his heart for Mara Carfagna" and she has already assured him that she will back him in the confidence vote on 14 December, then leave.

Miss Carfagna's decision came after she was photographed by fellow MP Alessandra Mussolini talking to a colleague of Mr Fini, prompting suggestions she was defecting to his Future and Liberty party, a claim she has denied.

Three years ago Mr Berlusconi was publicly ridiculed by his wife Veronica Lario after he told Miss Carfagna at an awards dinner that if he wasn't married he would "gladly marry" her.

His outraged wife retaliated by sending a public letter to a national newspaper demanding he apologise for embarrassing her, which he did.

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Meanwhile Mr Berlusconi, who has been embroiled in a series of sleaze scandals in the past month involving a teenage belly dancer and an escort girl, is still positive about winning the confidence vote.

He said: "My surveys have shown that I have a 56 per cent approval rating - the highest of any prime minister in Europe.We will win the confidence vote with a significant majority and if we don't, I will win elections."

However, other opinion polls show his popularity slipping to an all-time low in the light of the sex scandals and poor handling of the economic crisis which has seen Italy's growth stagnate.

Professor James Walston, a British lecturer on Italian politics at the American University of Rome, said: "Mara Carfagna was one of the Berlusconi faithful and I think her leaving is a strong sign the empire is crumbling. It's not going to fall yet because Berlusconi is a fighter and when it does there will be a lot of dirt from all directions - Carfagna has shown that she is her own woman and not just a pretty face."

Last month Mr Berlusconi was in the spotlight over his relationship with Karima el Mahroug, who was 17 when invited to a party he hosted and who he gave €7,000 and a diamond necklace.

She said they had not had sex but it later emerged he had called Milan police in May and asked for her to be released from custody after she had been arrested for theft, by wrongly claiming she was related to Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak.